Saudi Prince's Anti-Graft Sweep Reaches Aramco Board, Council

(Bloomberg) -- A Saudi Aramco director and a member of the royal council overseeing the world’s biggest oil exporter were arrested along with other top officials as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to strengthen his hand amid a reform push that includes a stake sale in the company next year.

The board member, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, a former finance minister, was among at least 17 princes, current and former government ministers and businessmen taken into custody, according to an infographic published by Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper. Adel Fakeih, the minister of economy and planning and a member of Saudi Arabia’s oversight council, was relieved of his post and replaced by his deputy, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. 

There was no indication of wrongdoing by Aramco, known officially as Saudi Arabian Oil Co., which couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the arrests. Authorities didn’t disclose the evidence that prompted the arrests and said the suspects are under investigation and were innocent until proven guilty.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who was promoted to his role in June, is leading the push to sell a stake in Aramco to fund growth in other areas of the economy and reduce reliance on oil revenue. U.S. President Donald Trump made a pitch via Twitter for New York to host the listing, along with Saudi Arabia’s main exchange in Riyadh. Trump and Saudi King Salman discussed a listing of the shares in the U.S. on Saturday, according to a White House statement.

Purge Ordered

“The new leadership is committed to modernizing the economy and diversifying the economy and addressing the issue of over-reliance on oil,” Khatija Haque, head of Middle East research at Dubai-based lender Emirates NBD PJSC, said Sunday in an interview. “What this signals is that the crown prince is strengthening his position to continue with pushing forward with the reforms that are needed.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered the purge of royals and top officials in an anti-corruption drive that may help clear obstacles to his son’s potential ascension to the throne. Police made arrests acting on the orders of a newly established anti-corruption committee, headed by the 32-year-old crown prince, SPA reported, without identifying all those arrested or specifying charges.

Assaf was arrested on charges of corruption linked to an urban expansion project in the city of Mecca, according to the Akhbaar 24 local news website. He served as finance minister for 13 years until being replaced a year ago and is also a board member of the Public Investment Fund. The PIF, the vehicle responsible for turning the country’s oil wealth into new businesses and lasting growth avenues, will own the rest of Saudi Aramco once the initial public offering of stock is completed.

Fakeih served on the supreme council that oversees Aramco. The council, which first met in September 2015, is headed by the crown prince and for the first time instituted direct royal control over the company. Previously, Aramco had been managed by the oil ministry, which has been headed by non-royal technocrats.

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