Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has denied reports he was mistreated or facing investment restrictions but admitted making a deal with the government after being released from detention under the kingdom’s corruption probe at the end of January.
Speaking to Bloomberg TV, the businessman used the opportunity to deny a series of reports including that the Saudi government now had veto power on the dealings of Kingdom Holding and it had cancelled a project for the world’s tallest tower.
“No, I need to clear my name, number one. And to clear up a lot of the lies. For example, when they said that I was tortured, I was sent to a prison, you know, during my 83 plus days in – in – in the Ritz-Carlton hotel,” he said.
“And all these were lies. I stayed all time there. I was never tortured. Actually, was given the best service, to be honest with you, by the Saudi government. Frankly speaking.”
The billionaire said doctors would see him twice a day at the luxury hotel, used as a temporary prison, and the “best food service” was offered to detainees, which included hundreds of other businessmen, royals and government officials.
He also dismissed reports that many of those released had been prevented from speaking publicly by the government, suggesting that few were public faces prior to their detention.
But he admitted for the first time that he had reached a deal with authorities despite continuing to claim his innocence.
The kingdom is now moving forward with the next phase of its corruption investigation having released all but 56 individuals of the 381 subpoenaed.
The Saudi attorney general said at the end of January a total of nearly $107bn in settlements was received from those released in the form of real estate, commercial entities, securities, cash and other assets.
The night he was arrested
Alwaleed went onto describe the night he was arrested on November 4 after receiving a call from a high-ranking government official saying the king and crown prince wanted to see him at the royal palace.
He said he arrived there and was met by government officials who told him they wanted to go to the Ritz-Carlton for discussions but did not suspect a roundup despite the lateness of the meeting.
“When I was called at 3:00 am, 4 o’clock in the morning, clearly I thought – was expecting something different. Something is not — not usual. Clearly.”
The prince was the first to arrive at the hotel and said he did not expect a long stay there until seeing reports of the detentions on the television and more and more people individuals arriving.
However, he later still felt comfortable as an “anti-corruption person”.
“Because if you can look at my tweets in the last three, four years, they were very much oriented against — against — against corruption.”
Alwaleed continued to claim there were no charges against him and the whole episode was a misunderstanding.
“I cannot dwell into what happened but there was no charges for sure. Because, you know, I have a pretty sure responsibility to my shareholders in Kingdom Holding, to my friends in Saudi Arabia and to whole community,” he said.
But he did admit there was an understanding reached with the government.
“Yet, I have to confess to you for the first time is that yes, we do have with the government a confirmed understanding going forward,” he explained.
“It is very confidential. I cannot get into that. But there is a confirmed understanding between the government of Saudi Arabia, between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and me personally. “
He said the arrangement “does not really handcuff” Kingdom Holding and its operations, his private office or entertainment firm Rotana and was not necessarily agreed to secure his exit from the Ritz.
“Yes. We signed something but it is – yes, it was signed but it is really a – based on mutual understanding between us.”
However, he would not comment on the exact nature of the deal or reports suggesting he was forced to hand over $6bn, roughly a third of his fortune.
“Now, some others may call it settlement. I don’t call it settlement because settlement to me is an acknowledgment that you made a wrong — you made something wrong. In my case, no, it’s a confirmed understanding with the government.”
Daily routine in the Ritz
In other questions, Alwaleed was asked about conditions inside the hotel and how he spent his time.
He said conditions were good but the Ritz-Carlton was “no Four Seasons at all” – the hotel brand in which he still has an interest despite recent stake sales relating to properties in Damascus and Beirut.
During a typical day the prince would not sleep until 6:00am in the smaller room of his suite after praying and then wake up at around 12:00pm before exercising for an hour or more. He would also divide his vegan meals from the usual two a day to six smaller plates. and pray five times a day.
He said no one else was “treated badly” or “ever tortured” during his time at the property but “maybe someone tried to run away or do something crazy”.
Although he confirmed he wasn’t allowed to talk to the other detainees.
Alwaleed made several brief calls to family and contacts including the CEO of Kingdom Holding and head of his foundation during his stay.
“Frankly speaking, it was not easy, you know, I have to confess that. It’s not easy to be – to be held against your will in a location, but I used to say, you know, look, this is your uncle, this is your country, and this is your cousin Prince Mohammed, and really when I left, very strange feeling I had, and I met with all – I gathered all the seniors in my companies and all my close confidants and I told them, I swear to you I have – I have complete serenity, complete comfort, and no grudge and no bad feelings at all.”
He went on to deny there were any travel restrictions on him or his family and he could continue maintaining relationships with heads of business and state.
Future investments and support for the crown prince
The billionaire indicated “life is back to normal” since his release and he is moving ahead with business deals.
Among them, Kingdom Holding is in discussions with the government and sovereign fund the Public Investment Fund to “co-invest in certain projects” within the kingdom including a Red Sea tourism development and an entertainment centre in Riyadh.
“We are in talk with the PIF and the government about investments – joint investments together now, it’s still not developed yet, and I can’t dwell into that because there’s no – nothing – fruitful – nothing final yet.”
Alwaleed said he was also in talks with “certain companies in the US for certain deals”.
Elsewhere, the firm is considering divesting almost half of its Saudi real estate assets into a real estate investment trust and Alwaleed said work on a 1km+ tower in Jeddah was proceeding despite delays.
“This will finish around three years, we are a bit late, but it’s going to finish in three years.”
The prince said he was “supportive completely” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who led the anti-corruption drive that saw him detained and is the face behind a series of reforms including the lifting of a female driving ban.
“You know, women’s rights, women in society, women driving, all these things I called for and he did that and more than that, by the way. He not only adopted what I said, but he did 10 times better than what I asked for,” he said.
Contact between the two happens every week via texts and calls, according to the businessman.
“I told them my vision right now is behind bin Salman, this guy is not only as strong as before, stronger, and this is shocking to many people,” he said.