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A Saudi Billionaire's Detention Is Making Some Investors Nervous

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal waves during an official visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2014. The Saudi billionaire was detained last month in Riyadh and has not been seen since.

One of the world's most famous — and flashy — billionaires is being detained by the Saudi government in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was swept up in early November, along with more than 200 other Saudi businessmen and princes, in a massive anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many analysts saw it as a power grab by the young prince.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is the highest-profile Saudi figure detained in the November sweep. More than just a member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, he is a businessman believed to be worth about $20 billion, with significant investments in many Western companies, including Citigroup, Twitter and Time Warner. He owns enormous yachts and a Boeing 747 with a gold-trimmed interior.

But detaining a key international financial player of Alwaleed's stature could harm potential investment in Saudi Arabia, some analysts say.

Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Alwaleed enjoys the spotlight, comfortably rubbing elbows with the world's movers and shakers.

"He enjoys his reputation both as an international tycoon and for his relationships with international business figures," says Henderson. "And frankly, he's flamboyant ... and loves to have his photograph taken."

But Henderson says Alwaleed is also known for philanthropic works, and has worked with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on a number of business and humanitarian projects, including vaccination drives. Henderson says the 62-year-old prince is a good example of modern Saudi Arabia — progressive and worldly — and "all of a sudden, he falls from favor."

There's been no sign of Alwaleed since he was detained as part of the anti-corruption crackdown. Allison Wood, a Middle East consultant for Control Risks, says many investors and analysts are trying to figure out what might happen to him. Alwaleed's company, Kingdom Holdings, offers no clues, she says.

"The official reaction from Kingdom Holdings has been to say that it's broadly business as normal," she says. "I don't know that a lot of people really believe that, necessarily, given that its largest shareholder has not been heard of from for several weeks at this point."

Shares in Kingdom Holdings dropped by 10 percent after Alwaleed's arrest.

It's unclear why Alwaleed was detained. In response to an NPR query on his case, Fatimah Baeshen, a spokesperson at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., said the embassy "does not have information on specific individuals, due to Saudi privacy laws."

Alwaleed may have got on the wrong side of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is trying to reform the economy and needs buy-in from the business community, says Ayham Kamel, a Middle East specialist with the Eurasia Group.

Kamel says Alwaleed has not rallied the domestic or international business community to invest in ventures sponsored by the crown prince, such as Neom, an ambitious new economic zone and business hub envisioned to be bigger than Dubai.

"In the last few months, although he has been supportive of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform efforts, he has not put money behind where his mouth is," he says.

Kamel doesn't believe the detentions will deter many international investors. "Part of what will make Saudi Arabia more viable over the long term is ending the corruption networks that connect the ruling family with business elites," he says.

But the Washington Institute's Henderson believes the detentions send a clear signal to Saudi and international investors.

"The crown prince is clearly not a person you want to get on the wrong side of ... it would be bad for your business and might well be bad for you," he says.

Wood, from Control Risks, says there's been no apparent transparency or due process in the detentions. But no matter the reason Alwaleed was picked up, she says, his continued absence is making some foreign investors nervous.

"Investors are certainly worried about where Alwaleed is," she says. "It's certainly introduced a great deal of uncertainty for companies that have associations with him."

Some detainees have been released after paying a settlement, including Prince Miteb bin Abdullah — once seen as a contender to the throne — who reportedly paid $1 billion for his freedom. The government public prosecutor says 159 are still being held.

The Eurasia Group's Kamel says Alwaleed certainly has the money to get out of his gilded prison, but may be digging in his heels.

"I think it's to make a point, and also to reach a deal that works for him as well," he says.

Until then, associates and business partners of Alwaleed can only guess about his fate.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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