Saudis Release Prince al-Waleed, One of the World’s Richest Men

Saudi billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal sits in the office of the suite where he has been detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. PHOTO: STAFF/REUTERS

DUBAI—Saudi authorities on Saturday released billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, more than two months after he was detained in a widespread purge of the kingdom’s elite.

Saudi officials said Saturday that Prince al-Waleed came to an undisclosed settlement with the government that allows him to remain chairman of his company, Kingdom Holding Co., one of the country’s biggest conglomerates. He is also a major investor around the world, including large stakes in Twitter Inc. and the Four Seasons hotel chain. The status of those investments and the rest of his $17 billion fortune remained unclear Saturday.

The release of one of the world’s richest men marks a new phase in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s self-described corruption crackdown. The 62-year-old Prince al-Waleed was one of dozens of royals, senior government officials and businesspeople rounded up in early November, a wave of arrests the Saudi government billed as part of a remake of the kingdom’s society but criticized by some rights groups and analysts as a power grab.

Now, the Saudi government is moving to release those cleared of corruption allegations or who settled them, while sending the holdouts to prison to await trial. Prince al-Waleed was among several prominent Saudis to secure release in recent days.

Efforts to reach Prince al-Waleed were unsuccessful on Saturday. He was already back at his house in Riyadh on Saturday and is expected to resume his business activities as normal, people familiar with the matter said.

Saudi authorities demanded at least $6 billion from Prince al-Waleed to free him, people familiar with the matter have said, among the highest figures they sought from those detained in a makeshift prison at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

Prince al-Waleed’s release comes after international investors raised concerns about the treatment of a man who had been a sort of independent Saudi ambassador to the world. Two French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, spoke to Prince Mohammed about these concerns.

Ahead of his release on Saturday, Prince al-Waleed in a Reuters interview granted from his initial place of detention at the Ritz-Carlton denied reports that he had been mistreated and called accusations against him a misunderstanding that would be cleared up soon.

“I‘m very comfortable because I’m in my country, I‘m in my city, so I feel at home. It’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine,” he said, sporting a trimmed beard and traditional white robe in a video of the interview online.

He told Reuters that he was able to speak freely with his company, wouldn’t necessarily give the government money for his freedom, and was remaining under detention voluntarily until the investigation was complete.

Prince Mohammed has been turning up the pressure on the more than 90 detainees who haven’t paid settlements in exchange for their freedom. Many have been moved from the Ritz to the al-Hayer prison near Riyadh, where human-rights groups have complained of mistreatment of prisoners—accusations the Saudi government denies.

Several prominent Saudi businessmen have reached financial settlements with the kingdom in the past few days, including Waleed al-Ibrahim, owner of regional television network MBC, who also has been released, the people familiar with the matter said.

Other prominent names include Fawaz Alhokair, a major shareholder in fashion retailer Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair Co.; Khalid al-Tuwaijri, a former chief of the Royal Court; and Turki bin Nasser, a former head of the country’s meteorology and environmental protection agency, the people said. These people couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Saudi Arabia has secured about $100 billion in total after many of the more than 200 detained agreed to settle and were released, Saudi officials said.

The public prosecutor’s office said Wednesday that officials were moving ahead with plans to prosecute 95 people who were still detained and have declined to pay what the government describes as financial settlements.