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In Saudi Corruption Crackdown, Big Targets Are Going Free

Former Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, shown in 2013, was among those released in the past week. Source: KONSTANTIN SALOMATIN/PRESS POOL.

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The release suggests several high-profile suspects are agreeing to settlements.

The Saudi government in recent days has released at least two dozen high-profile suspects held in a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption, a sign that those accused of illegally amassing wealth are increasingly agreeing to settle as authorities push to expedite the investigation process.

Among those released in the past week is Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former finance minister and board member of the state oil giant Saudi Aramco, who was accused of embezzlement related to the expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque and taking advantage of his position, people familiar with the matter said Sunday.

Others released include former assistant minister of finance Mohammed bin Homoud Al Mazyed, Saoud al-Daweesh, former chief executive of Saudi Telecom, Prince Turki bin Khalid, and Mohy Saleh Kamel, a businessman, the people said. None of the suspects freed could be immediately reached for comment.

“They all settled to get out,” said a senior adviser to the Saudi government. “At least two dozens were released if not more.”

“We will see more getting released soon and court trials for those who want to clear their names. The government want this over sooner than later,” he said.

Spokespeople for the Saudi government didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The anticorruption campaign began in early November and has swept up more than 200 people, including senior government officials, prominent businessmen and members of the ruling family, many of whom have been confined to the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel in western Riyadh.

The investigation is being led by a newly established anticorruption agency headed by the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is pushing to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy as well as its conservative society.

The detainees, who face accusations that range from procurement fraud to money laundering and bribery, were given the option by Saudi authorities of relinquishing part of their wealth in exchange for freedom rather than going to court.

The government already freed in the past month several of those arrested after they agreed to surrender a part of their assets. That included Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the most politically influential royal detained in the campaign who was once seen as a leading contender to the throne, after he agreed to pay over $1 billion to settle corruption allegations against him. Prince Miteb couldn’t be reached for comment.

The anti-graft campaign has largely been welcomed in Saudi Arabia, where many people are angry at what they see as rampant corruption among the wealthy. It has helped burnish Prince Mohammed’s popular image as a champion of fairness, though some analysts and observers outside the kingdom see the crackdown as part of a centralization of power in the hands of the young crown prince. He became next in line to the throne this summer.

The release of some detainees has also been cheered on social media, irking others.

It isn’t clear how many people are still detained as part of the government crackdown. Other high-profile detainees who remain at the Ritz include billionaire tycoon Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a major investor in companies including Citigroup Inc. and Apple Inc. through his firm Kingdom Holding Co., and Adel Fakieh, who until he was detained was Saudi Arabia’s economy minister.

Saudi authorities are demanding at least $6 billion from Prince al-Waleed to free him from detention, people familiar with the matter said, potentially putting the global business empire of one of the world’s richest men at risk.

Prince al-Waleed is talking with the government about instead accepting as payment for his release a large piece of Kingdom Holding, people familiar with the matter said.