Saudi Arabia's internationally famous billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been detained for more than three weeks, and Western business leaders have begun expressing concern and confusion.
At the beginning of the month, a brand new anti-corruption committee created at the directive of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman moved quickly to arrest a number of high-profile businessmen, princes, and others. It was quickly reported that Prince Alwaleed was among those detained.
Now, going on a month later, little is known about the fate of Prince Alwaleed, except that he is detained with numerous others at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, which has been transformed into a luxury prison.
Earlier this month, it was reported that Riyadh has offered the detained officials and businessmen the chance to pay for their freedom, demanding up to 70 percent of the detained individuals' personal wealth.
However, with Prince Alwaleed's financial interests stretching around the world, some in the international business community are concerned that little has been heard from him since his arrest.
Speaking to The New York Times, several explained their fears that his absence could have major ripple effects. Others expressed confusion about why he got caught up in the arrests.
“I’m surprised that he got swept up in this, because he had always been such a positive figure both in reality and symbolically for Saudi progressivism — for participating in the modern world, in modern finance,” said Richard Parsons, a former chief executive of Time Warner and former chairman of Citigroup, in which Prince Alwaleed had also been a large investor.
Parsons also suggested the arrests were a red flag to individuals considering an investment in Saudi Arabia.
“There is no transparency. Nobody understands what is going on. It is unclear why or what the rationale is. If you’re an investor or a businessperson, you’re going to take a step back from the starting line and say, ‘I’m just going to keep my money in my pocket.’”
Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, also expressed tacit support for Prince Alwaleed's case, citing the billionaire's generosity and philanthropy.
“Prince Alwaleed has been an important partner in my foundation’s work to ensure that kids around the world receive lifesaving vaccinations. We’ve worked together to help stop the spread of polio, measles and other preventable diseases. His commitment to philanthropy is inspiring," he told The New York Times.
Other prominent businessmen that spoke to the U.S. publication said they weren't so concerned about the overall arrests, but specifically the status of Prince Alwaleed. For many, the prince was the "longtime public face of finance" from the kingdom.
At the same time, Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi expressed overall optimism about changes underway in the kingdom. The kingdom has invested a direct stake in Uber, but Khorowshahi said his company had expressed concerns about social issues before that money was accepted.
"The company explicitly talked about how we actually believe that women should be able to drive. And since then, the changes that we’re seeing — the cultural changes that we’re seeing in Saudi Arabia — they are unambiguously positive," Khorowshahi said.
However, dismissing concerns about potential financial and economic risks, the crown prince told The New York Times in a separate interview last week that experts are making sure things will run smoothly.
"We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process," Prince Mohammed said.
“Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up," he explained.
The crown prince went on to say that "about 1 percent" of those being investigated can prove that they are actually clean of any corruption.
"About 4 percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court. Under Saudi law, the public prosecutor is independent. We cannot interfere with his job — the king can dismiss him, but he is driving the process," the crown prince said.
"You have to send a signal, and the signal going forward now is, ‘You will not escape.’ And we are already seeing the impact."