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Doubt clouds Prince Alwaleed return – Uncertainty hangs over business community

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RIYADH, Feb 1, (RTRS): Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is back on the job as chairman of global investment firm Kingdom Holding after being released from detention in an anti-corruption campaign, the company said on Thursday.

Prince Alwaleed, one of the country’s top international investors, was freed on Saturday, nearly three months after being taken into custody along with dozens of senior officials and businessmen on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Most detainees have been released, after settlements secured just over $100 billion from members of the elite, the attorney general has said, without providing details.

In his first interview since being detained, conducted hours before his release, Prince Alwaleed told Reuters he maintained his innocence and expected to keep full control of his firm. A senior Saudi official would not confirm that claim but said any settlements included an admission of guilt.

In the absence of more information, speculation has run rampant about whether Prince Alwaleed secured his freedom by handing over part of his fortune — previously estimated by Forbes magazine at $17 billion — or stood up to the authorities and won.

He and other tycoons face a challenge to get back into the swing of running their financial empires in the uncertainty hanging over the business community since their detention.

Their ability to do so could make it harder for Saudi Arabia to attract foreign investors to big projects, an important part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s grand vision to transform the kingdom and reduce its dependence on oil.

Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of King Salman, holds stakes in major international companies including Citigroup, Twitter, and ride-hailing firm Lyft.

In the first few days after his detention, Kingdom Holding’s share price plunged 23 percent, erasing $2.2 billion of his personal fortune on paper. After a jump this week, the stock has regained almost all that it lost, but during his detention the overall stock market rose 10 percent.

Kingdom shares do not reflect that gain, suggesting investors are still discounting the stock. Kingdom published a photo of Prince Alwaleed reviewing documents behind a large wooden desk and still sporting the grey beard he grew in detention. “We are very pleased to welcome back (His Royal Highness) Prince Alwaleed to continue his important work as Chairman of Kingdom Holding Company,” Chief Executive Talal Almaimansaid said.

The firm’s strategy is aligned with the Vision 2030 reform agenda “to create strong investor appeal and a business environment in which KHC and our partners can flourish”, he added. Prince Alwaleed’s predicament suggests Saudi tycoons who have long been content to focus on amassing huge profits must now consider whether the government’s anti-corruption drive could stop them in their tracks.

Saudi Arabia’s attorney general said on Tuesday that settlement deals had secured just over $100 billion from members of the elite. He did not provide a breakdown, and Reuters could not verify that figure. In a video, property mogul Mohammed Aboud al-Amoudi sits in a black office chair at his home in Jeddah receiving kisses on the hand and forehead from a procession of well-wishers who utter thanksgiving for his safe return after nearly three months in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

A company representative reached by phone said Amoudi was in good health. “It is as if he was travelling and returned, nothing more,” said the person who declined to be named, adding it was not clear if he would run the company again.

Associates of other released detainees, including media magnate Waleed al-Ibrahim and retail billionaire Fawaz al-Hokair, told Reuters they were at home catching up with family and close friends. An email to MBC employees seen by Reuters described Ibrahim as “fit and eager to get back”.

It said he would travel to Dubai in a couple of weeks to get “back in the driving seat”. Hokair, meanwhile, is hosting dinners for guests, according to one attendee. The stock price of his company, fashion retailer Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair Co, is still 13 percent below its level just before he was detained. “It’s as if he was on a business trip or in a summer holiday or a religious trip. He is fully motivated, full of ambitions,” the attendee said. “He does not talk about anything, he just says he was happy and received good treatment.”

These men are among the last group released from the Ritz, which had been used since November as a prison and interrogation centre for dozens of senior princes, ministers and businessmen and was cleared out on Tuesday.

Specific allegations against the men and the settlements they agreed before their release were kept secret. Some may have been moved to prison after refusing to admit wrongdoing and reach financial settlements; they may stand trial. Notably absent from the final batch of releases were Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the king’s nephew, and dismissed Economy Minister Adel Fakieh.

Their fates remain unknown. Two bankers said assets or corporate ownership transfers had not yet been made for the last batch of released detainees and any handovers could be shielded from public view for some time through what one banker described as “very clever lawyers and accountants.” Critics have described the anti-corruption campaign as a shakedown and power move by the Crown Prince.

The government denies this. As workers removed security barriers at the Ritz-Carlton in anticipation of the hotel’s reopening in mid-February, recently checked-out “guests” reconnected with loved ones. Pictures shared on social media showed Alwaleed visiting an ill nephew in hospital. On Twitter, people urged him to continue his charitable activities.

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