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Saudi Arabia swapping assets for freedom of some held in graft purge: Sources

  • Dozens of princes, businessmen held in corruption purge
  • Authorities seek return of 'ill-gotten gains,' source says
  • Saudis aided by international auditors, investigators
Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia
Olivier Douliery | Pool | Getty Images
Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia

Saudi authorities are striking agreements with some of those detained in an anti-corruption crackdown, asking them to hand over assets and cash in return for their freedom, sources familiar with the matter said.

The deals involve separating cash from assets like property and shares, and looking at bank accounts to assess cash values, one of the sources told Reuters.

Dozens of princes, senior officials and businessmen, including cabinet ministers and billionaires, have been detained in the graft inquiry at least partly aimed at strengthening the power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

These include billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom's most prominent businessmen.

One businessman had tens of millions of Saudi riyals withdrawn from his account after he signed. In another case, a former senior official consented to hand over ownership of four billion riyals worth of shares, the source said.

The Saudi government earlier this week moved from freezing accounts to issuing instructions for "expropriation of unencumbered assets" or seizure of assets, said a second source familiar with the situation.

There was no immediate comment from the Saudi government on the deals and the sources declined to be identified because these agreements are not public.

Analysts said the deals may help end uncertainty about the anti-corruption crackdown but could have an impact on Saudi Arabia's risk perception among investors.

"Eliminating uncertainty about what the Saudi authorities are going to do goes a long way towards giving the market comfort that the regime is getting its house in order, and plugging its deficit," said Louis Gargour, founder and senior portfolio manager at London-based hedge fund LNG Capital.

Riyadh has been cutting spending while raising taxes and fees to curb a state budget deficit caused by low oil prices. The deficit, which hit $98 billion in 2015, is shrinking but at a high cost to the economy - data in late September showed Saudi Arabia in recession during the second quarter.

The Saudi government has in recent years been pressing wealthy individuals to invest more in the kingdom and bring home some of their wealth from overseas.

The United States is closely watching the situation in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday.

Asked about agreements to hand over wealth for detainees' freedom, Mnuchin told CNBC: "I think that the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman) is doing a great job at transforming the country."

Depleted coffers

Gargour said: "From a civil liberties point of view obviously incarcerating people doesn't give us comfort, and that's why we've seen spreads on Saudi bonds go 50 basis points or so wider."

Funds started selling Middle East bonds early this month after Saudi Arabia detained dozens of senior officials and businessmen in an unprecedented crackdown on graft.

Credit spreads and the cost of insuring debt against default have increased not only for Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but across the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi.

"From a trading point of view you want to identify the private companies most impacted and short or sell them, and conversely public sector companies will benefit," said Gargour.

The market value of the portfolio of Saudi equities held by the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, has gained, even as the arrest or questioning of more than 200 people in the inquiry caused stocks in many privately controlled firms to slump.

Reuters could not immediately verify a Financial Times report that in some cases the government is seeking to appropriate as much as 70 percent of suspects' wealth to channel hundreds of billions of dollars into depleted state coffers.

The Saudi authorities have help from international auditors, investigators and people with experience in tracing assets. Bank representatives are on hand to execute the decisions immediately, one of the sources said.

Saudi authorities have said they have questioned 208 people in an anti-corruption investigation and estimate at least $100 billion has been stolen through graft, an official said last week as the inquiry expanded beyond the kingdom's borders into the United Arab Emirates.

Those detained include other high-profile businessmen such as Mohammad al-Amoudi, whose wealth is estimated by Forbes at $10.4 billion, with construction, agriculture, and energy companies in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia; and finance and healthcare magnate Saleh Kamel, whose fortune is seen at $2.3 billion.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to use the anti-corruption purge as a way of boosting his popularity with the Saudi population, said Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at Capital Economics.

"But he may have realized that by doing this he's gone a step too far and ruffled too many feathers, and he is maybe trying to find a way out that means these people don't end up in prison forever and can carry on their business operations as before."