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 major 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.
Prince Alwaleed and Kingdom further acquired a stake in the car-hailing company Lyft early last year, buying some of the shares of its earlier investors Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund.
The prince and his 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 the company, though several months later, a source close to the prince said Kingdom had no plans to invest.
The prince’s newest Silicon Valley tie is to beleaguered condiments maker Hampton Creek, which restocked its board last month after its former directors left, adding Prince Alaweed, among other new board members. It isn’t clear whether the prince has provided Hampton Creek with any funding. Bloomberg noted in a report that the prince is an animal rights activist. Hampton Creek makes a vegan mayonnaise and is said to be working on lab-grown meat.
According to the New Time 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 trying to flee 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 Mark 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 sometimes defying his elders since King Salman assumed the throne in 2015, says the Washington Post, which last year compared what has developed in Saudi Arabia since to a plot from “Game of Thrones.”
Its sources suggested at the time that 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, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman 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 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 it is also expected to list on at least one foreign exchange — to choose 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 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.
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