Why Saudi Prince bin Talal's 'friends' have abandoned him

  • Investing celebrity Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has now been detained and reportedly tortured for more than three weeks.
  • The political and financial world has remained mostly silent or at least relatively calm about it.
  • Here are the uncomfortable political and financial reasons his so-called friends appear to have abandoned him.
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal
Mohammad Obaidi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal

One of the world's richest men and most sought-after investors has been under arrest and even reportedly tortured for more than three weeks.

That man is billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. He owns major stakes in Twitter and Citigroup. He was a key shareholder in 21st Century FOX. His television interviews, including on CNBC, are promoted with "must-watch" status. He's routinely called the "Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia."

But since November 5, bin Talal has been detained in a room at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The hotel has become a de facto prison for more than 200 of his fellow princes and Saudi officials as new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conducts a sweeping and stunning purge of his real and potential political opponents.

To make matters worse, several credible reports have surfaced that bin Talal and the others are being tortured. One report says he's been hung upside down and beaten. Those stories gained a level of credence earlier this week when another prince, Miteb bin Abdullah, paid a reported $1 billion for his freedom.

As bin Salman pushes to beef up Saudi Arabia's military power and alliances against Iran, the official reason for these arrests is that they are part of an "anti-corruption probe." But of course, the kingdom is not presenting anything in the way of documented evidence. That's not how they roll in a regime that Human Rights Watch points out has no written penal code or criminal rights.

"Since November 5, bin Talal has been detained in a room at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The hotel has become a de facto prison for more than 200 of his fellow princes."

That brings us to an uncomfortable question: Where are Prince bin Talal's powerful business partners and political contacts who have been seen with him at DAVOS or dozens of other major world events?

This was the man who stuck his neck out for years in support of the Murdoch family. And that includes the period in 2011 when calls to oust Rupert Murdoch and his sons were running high after the British News of the World phone tapping scandal. There has been no real protest on his behalf from the Murdochs or in their newspapers and TV networks.

Others, like Bill Gates who called him an "important partner," have made lukewarm statements this past week. But none have met the level of urgency appropriate for a man detained with no documented charges and possibly under physical harm.

Likewise, our political leadership on both sides of the aisle seems to be ignoring the story.

So why this apparent acceptance of tyranny and brutality against an important global investor who appeared to be a friend of the West?

The explanation is part economics and part politics, but the consequences for such silence could be devastating.

Let's start with economics. The financial world has long been awaiting what will be the biggest IPO of all time: Saudi Aramco. This is a company that's already estimated valuations of anywhere between $1 trillion to $2 trillion. It's the definition of the term "big deal." Everyone wants a piece.

There's a concerted effort by bin Salman to keep too many members of the extended family from interfering in Aramco's operations and spending. These arrests may have a lot to do with that effort. Either way, supporting bin Talal and the other detained princes with even a strongly worded statement could poison a foreign investor's Aramco prospects.

The political reasons are a little less clear, but we do know there is strong support in the Trump administration for bin Salman's plan to cultivate a new partnership with Israel and his efforts to disrupt the long Saudi-funded Wahabist terrorist network. He's also trying to culturally modernize the country and remove anti-Semitic clerics.

bin Talal has never been solidly linked to terror, but he has been critical of Israel. bin Salman may be looking to remove all doubts that he is serious about putting a lid on all real and possible sources for terror support.

So for the Trump administration, supporters of Israel, and everyone else worried about Iran, there's a relatively clear acceptance of bin Salman's moves to achieve a greater good in the Middle East. The ends apparently justify the means.

But that's a clear moral hazard. When a nation accepts brutality and tyranny in one regime in order in order to stamp it out in another, blowback can happen. America should have learned that the hard way after its years of supporting the Shah of Iran and some other dictators in the region without any real pressure to introduce democratic reforms and the rule of law. Iran is a greater danger right now. But a more suppressive Saudi Arabia could be close behind. There's nothing democratic or civilized about what's happening now in Riyadh.

Money and the push to challenge Iran are clearly silencing any protest so far. Maybe bin Talal isn't the most sympathetic victim. But his case is illuminating because he is so well connected and famous. What does that say about other Saudis who aren't?

Perhaps these frightening means to the end will be worth it. But our track record in the Middle East doesn't make the odds all that encouraging.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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