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New Phase Begins In Saudi Arabia's Anti-Corruption Crackdown


On February 14, yes, you'll be able to celebrate Valentine's Day. You will also be able to book a room at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Saudi Arabia's capital city, Riyadh. It has been full since November when some 200 wealthy influential Saudis, including at least 17 princes, were placed under house arrest as part of an anti-corruption crackdown. So what do the upcoming vacancies mean? Let's ask NPR's Jackie Northam who has been following this story. Hi, Jackie.


GREENE: So what can we learn from the fact that there are going to be rooms available now? What about the people who have been held there?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, I did check with the Ritz-Carlton, and they confirmed that these will be open - these rooms again starting at about $650 a night. And that's being seen as the Saudi government may be moving into a new phase of this anti-corruption campaign that was launched in early November and is getting ready to move some of these wealthy people out of the Ritz and into a high-security prison.

The Saudi government says it's owed about $100 billion and has reached a settlement with many of the detainees who are in this very plush jail, and they've already been released. But others have not paid up. So now they will head to prison and presumably have their day in court. And, you know, David, the people I spoke with felt the Saudi government would've preferred an informal settlement - a payment - because a court case could bring a lot of dirty laundry out into the open.

GREENE: When you say out in the open, I'm just amazed, if we step back, that the way to report on Saudi Arabia is sometimes to call up a hotel and ask if there are rooms available. I mean, it's hard to actually get information from the government because they want to keep stuff so secret. So how are you - how do you report this story?

NORTHAM: Well, yeah. And this issue in particular has been a challenge. You know, the government hasn't made public any names - provide very, very few details. But I've been speaking with a lot of my international business contacts who are well-placed to follow these sorts of developments, including who's being held. And one of those is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. He's an entrepreneur. He's worth about $18 billion and has connections to many major Western corporations. And, David, he's not being seen or heard of since November, nor has Bakr bin Laden. And he's the chairman of the powerful Bin Laden construction company. He was also Osama bin Laden's half brother. But Bakr bin Laden has not been seen either. And the bin Laden group issued a statement on its website saying some of its shareholders have handed over their stakes in the company to the government.

GREENE: And I guess the important thing to do here is try and understand what this says about the country. So can you sort of remind us why the government launched this crackdown in the first place?

NORTHAM: Yeah. It was launched really by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And he's trying to overhaul the economy and, as part of that, wants to get rid of corruption because it can deter any sort of much needed foreign investment. You know, having said that, rounding up rich people and holding them without due process until they pay a settlement probably doesn't instill much confidence in any foreign investor either. But the crown prince's detractors say the crackdown is really a power grab and has sent a reminder about who's in charge. At the same time, there are many people supporting the move and glad someone is finally tackling the endemic corruption. And the crown prince is seen by many as modernizing, you know, this traditional conservative kingdom.

GREENE: And how is that going? I mean, is this country liberalizing?

NORTHAM: Yeah, there's a lot of moves lately. You know, women will be allowed to drive later this year. There are now concerts they can go to. Women, for the first time this past weekend, were allowed into a soccer game. They still had to sit in the family section and that, but they were allowed. And then the kingdom held its first movie in 35 years this past weekend as well. For screening, it was "The Emoji Movie," David. So there you go. So there are movements underfoot.

GREENE: Things seem to be changing to some extent. NPR's Jackie Northam talking to us about a moment in Saudi Arabia. Jackie, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "DO MATTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.