ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia said Thursday that it had detained more than 200 people as part of an expanding “anti-corruption” campaign that has led to the arrests of at least 11 princes and some of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent business tycoons.
The arrests began last week, and Saudi Arabia’s attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, said in a statement on Thursday that the investigation was proceeding “quickly.” The probe has found that at least $100 billion had been “misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades,” the statement said, without providing details.
Saudi Arabia's sudden and sweeping drive to punish graft, a deeply rooted problem in the country, appears to be closely linked to an effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to eliminate challengers and consolidate power before his father, King Salman, dies or abdicates, analysts say.
The arrests over the past few days include potential rivals, such as Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was head of the Saudi National Guard and a favored son of the late King Abdullah. Also detained was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor who holds large stakes in companies such as Twitter and Apple.
The anti-graft campaign has overlapped with a spike in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its regional nemesis: a coincidence of timing, or a sign that Mohammed and the Saudi leadership were mounting a broad offensive against enemies at home and abroad.
Over the past five days, Saudi Arabia’s turbulence has reverberated across the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia traded bitter accusations over the war in Yemen after Saudi Arabia claimed that Iran bore responsibility for a missile strike on Saturday that reached Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group allied with Iran that is battling a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, said it had carried out the missile strike. Iran denied it was responsible.
Separately, the Saudis appear to have played a central role in the mysterious and abrupt resignation of Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, who harshly criticized Iran during a speech he delivered Saturday from Riyadh. Hariri's whereabouts have remained a subject of fevered speculation amid rumors that the Saudis are restricting his movements.
The Saudi attorney general, responding to mounting concerns that the arrests could scare off foreign investment in the kingdom, said that “normal commercial activity” would not be affected and that only personal bank accounts were being suspended as part of the probe.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, on Thursday also denied detentions would affect investor confidence, saying in an interview with CNBC that “it shows that we have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on corruption.”
The investigations had been underway for more than two years, he said.
“A sizable percentage of our budget, we discovered, was being stolen. And this cannot stand. Where you have corruption, you cannot have justice, you cannot have investment, you cannot have efficient and transparent government,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview.