In a move sure to shock the business world, Saudi Arabia last night announced the arrest of at least eleven princes, including renowned billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, as part of a sweeping corruption investigation.
Prince Alwaleed controls the investment firm Kingdom Holding and is one of the world’s richest men, owning or having owned meaningful positions in satellite TV networks, as well as in News Corp. (a stake it has since mostly sold), Citigroup (shares of which it has owned since 1991), and a growing number of tech companies.
The prince and Kingdom Holding, of which he owns 95 percent, first invested $300 million in Twitter in 2011, two years before the company went public. In 2015, he invested another $50 million to increase his ownership in Twitter and, as of last year, remained one of the company’s largest shareholders.
In 2013, Kingdom also acquired 2.5 percent of China-based retailer JD.Com, which went public on the Nasdaq the following year and whose shares have roughly doubled since.
The prince and other members of his investment company announced in March 2015 that they’d sat down with Snap CEO Evan Spiegel and the company’s chief strategy officer, Imran Khan, about a possible investment in Snap, though several months later, a source close to the prince said Kingdom had no plans to invest.
Price Alwaleed first began investing in tech in the late ’90s and has owned shares of both Apple and Ebay for more than 15 years.
According to the New York Times, the arrests appear to be a move to consolidate the power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son and the top adviser of King Salman, who had announced the creation of a new anti-corruption committee — headed by the crown prince — just hours before the arrests were ordered.
According to the Times, the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh was subsequently evacuated, possibly to house the arrested royals, and the airport for private planes shuttered, presumably to stop anyone from fleeing the country.
Last year, Prince Alwaleed joined a number of other billionaires in signing up for the “Giving Pledge” of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Among others to sign up at the time were Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff; the three cofounders of Airbnb (Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk); and Intuit founder Scott Cook. As the Times notes, it’s unclear whether Saudi Arabia’s newly established corruption committee might seek to confiscate any of Prince Alwaleed’s assets, estimated to be $32 billion.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is reportedly known at home and abroad, has been outmaneuvering and openly resisting his elders since King Salman assumed the throne in 2015, says the Washington Post, which has since compared the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia to a plot from “Game of Thrones.” In fact, its sources have suggested the now 32-year-old prince has the potential to either reshape Saudi Arabia into a more modern, dynamic country — or else drive it off a cliff.
At an investor conference in Riyadh last month, one attended by the likes of U.S. investor Peter Thiel, MBS told the audience that he aims to “return Saudi Arabia to the moderate Islam that once prevailed” before the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
He further stressed that 70 percent of Saudis are under the age of 30 and and uninterested in spending “another 30 years of our lives living under extremist ideas.”
In April, he had unveiled an economic road map for the kingdom called Vision 2030 that calls for privatizing 5 percent of the country’s flagship petroleum company, Aramco.
Just yesterday, Donald Trump pitched Aramco — whose shares will debut on the Saudi domestic market but are also expected to list on at least one foreign exchange — on choosing the NYSE specifically. “Important to the United States!” Trump wrote.
Prince Alwaleed, talking last month with CNBC, suggested that an even bigger portion of Aramco could be up made available to investors in coming years.
“No one talks about this idea that if you go 5 percent, there’s nothing that prohibits you from going another 5 percent next year, and 5 percent the third year and fourth year, and so forth, depending on the situation,” he’d told the media outlet, speaking from his apartment in Riyadh.
“I know this is our treasure, and we have to keep it. But that treasure also needs to support the country,” he’d added.
Correction: The original version of this story reported that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s newest Silicon Valley tie is to beleaguered condiments maker Hampton Creek, which restocked its board last month after its former directors left. Hampton Creek’s newest board member is instead Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal. Apologies for the mix-up.