Among the numerous high-profile figures arrested overnight in Saudi Arabia on “anti-corruption” charges, in addition to the shocking detention of prince Alwalaleed bin-Talal another unexpected name has emerged: that of Bakr bin Laden, chairman of Saudi Binladin Group and brother of Osama bin Laden. The Binladin Group is one of the biggest construction companies, with an annual turnover of $30 billion. It was carrying out the expansion of the Kaaba complex.
The family rejected al-Qaeda’s former leader, Osama Bin Ladin, because he was involved in terrorist activities in the 1990s. A quick primer on the Binladin Group from the WSJ:
Based in Jeddah and [ZH: formerly] favored by Saudi Arabia’s royal family, Saudi Binladin Group derives billions in annual revenue from a wide range of enterprises, including mosque construction, telecommunications and selling Snapple soft drinks in Saudi Arabia. Although the family’s U.S. spokesman says Saudi Binladin Group is wholly owned by the extended bin Laden family, not including Osama, he said he could provide no information on exactly which members have an equity interest in the company.
British paging company Multitone Electronics PLC said it was shocked to learn that its reseller in Saudi Arabia, Baud Telecommunications Ltd., is owned by the Binladin Group. “You’re joking,” Chief Executive Michael Walker said. “Oh bloody! I didn’t know. I thought it was just Baud Telecom.”
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The family has donated to colleges, Islamic organizations and other nonprofit causes in both England and the U.S. Abdullah, one of Mr. bin Laden’s brothers, received a master’s degree in law from Harvard Law School in 1992.
Two years later, on a fundraising trip to the Middle East, the law school’s dean made a pitch to another brother, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, chairman of the family group. Bakr and the group subsequently donated $1 million to the law school, half for a visiting scholars program and half for financial aid for law students from the Muslim world. The family also gave $1 million to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1993.
Robert Clark, the law school dean, said the gift was intended “to promote mutual understanding between scholars trained in Islamic legal systems and those trained in Western legal systems. We need that more than ever.”
Still, outside the Arab world, the Binladin name has become an increasing liability. Until a year and a half ago, the group had a prominent storefront on the main street of Astana in the new Kazakhstan, with a contract to create the city’s master plan. Then, although the Kazak government believed the company’s assurances that it was not linked to Mr. bin Laden, President Nursultan Nazarbayev dropped the company just in case someone got the wrong idea, a government official said.
In 1999, the group changed the name of its telecommunications division from Binladin to Baud. John Dickson, a Baud manager, says the switch reflects a desire to choose a more modern name. Baud means distance in Arabic, and in English it is a measurement of speed.
As the WSJ concluded back in 2001, “In the Arab world the Binladin name is looked upon with “absolute reverence – like IBM.”
Not any more, even though the reason why the Binladen chairman has fallen out of grace with the Saudi royalty has yet to be determined.
As a reminder, a total of eleven princes, four current ministers and dozens of former ministers were among those who were detained. A list of those detained includes:
- Bakr bin Laden, chairman of Saudi Binladin Group;
- Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding;
- Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, minister of the National Guard;
- Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh province;
- Khalid al-Tuwaijri, former chief of the Royal Court;
- Adel Fakeih, Minister of Economy and Planning;
- Ibrahim al-Assaf, former finance minister;
- Abdullah al-Sultan, commander of the Saudi navy;
- Mohammad al-Tobaishi, former head of protocol at the Royal Court;
- Amr al-Dabbagh, former governor of Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority;
- Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of television network MBC;
- Khalid al-Mulheim, former director-general at Saudi Arabian Airlines;
- Saoud al-Daweesh , former chief executive of Saudi Telecom;
- Prince Turki bin Nasser, former head of the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment;
- Prince Fahad bin Abdullah bin Mohammad al-Saud, former deputy defence minister;
- Saleh Kamel, businessman;
- Mohammad al-Amoudi, businessman;
As reported overnight, many of the detainees were held at the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh. The hotel’s exterior gate was shuttered on Sunday morning and guards turned away a Reuters reporter, saying it had been closed for security reasons though private cars and ambulances were seen entering through a rear entrance. Ironically, the hotel and an adjacent facility were the site of an international conference promoting Saudi Arabia as an investment destination just 10 days ago attended by at least one of those now being held for questioning.
People on Twitter applauded the arrests of certain ministers with some comparing them to Germany’s “the night of the long knives.” The arrest orders came from an anti-corruption committee just hours after the King Salman issued a Royal Decree to form the committee, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The new body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets. “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.
As Reuters adds, the line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists. WikiLeaks has detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles. In September the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.
Analysts say the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter. Others have speculated that the move was a “countercoup” similar to that conducted in June by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman to cement his control on Saudi power.
The royal decree said the arrests were in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.”
The real reason behind the arrests: to shore up power, remove even more potential opponents and threats, all under the guise of cracking down on corruption, a page taken right out Xi Jinping playbook as he sought to – and eventually became last month’s – China’s quasi emperor.
The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family, wrote James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” he said. Scholar Joseph Kechichian said the interests of the Al Saud, however, would remain protected.
“Both King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman are fully committed to them. What they wish to instill, and seem determined to execute, is to modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too,” he said.
Yet while Xi Jinping’s demi-god status is safe – at least until China’s middle class revolts – that of Mohammed bin Salman may be far more precarious in the coming weeks, especially if he overestimated his power and influence, and the two consecutive countercoups ultimately lead to precisely what he fears the most: a coup – either peaceful or not so much – that ultimately removes him from power.