Saudi Arabia has announced it will confiscate money and assets held by dozens of top officials and businessmen detained in an anti-corruption crackdown.
But the experiences of two other Arab states trying to recover stolen money — Egypt and Tunisia — suggest Riyadh may face years of legal and diplomatic battles to secure assets held abroad.
Even then success is not guaranteed.
The anti-corruption committee which detained princes, tycoons and ministers last weekend has the power under a royal decree to take “whatever measures are deemed necessary” to seize companies, funds and other assets.
It can do this without waiting for the results of criminal investigations.
The offshore scrutiny of assets has already begun in the Gulf region, where Saudi Arabia regularly shares information.
The United Arab Emirates’ central bank and securities regulator has asked banks and finance companies there to provide information on the accounts of 19 Saudi citizens, banking sources told journalists.
The Saudi committee has not given details of the allegations individuals face, though Saudi officials say they include money laundering, bribery, extortion and taking advantage of public office for personal gain.
Riyadh has also set no timetable for its confiscations, although banking sources say over 1,700 domestic bank accounts have already been frozen at the request of the Central Bank.
An official at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry has estimated that if the committee were to try to retrieve all the revenue that has been lost to corruption, from bribes to illegal expropriation of land, the total would be $800 billion.
A large amount of the funds are believed by financial sources to be held offshore in bank accounts, portfolio investments, corporate shareholdings and real estate.
Many of the businessmen detained have private planes, with one having a Boeing 747 airliner.
And a study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that Saudis have stashed away wealth equivalent to over 55 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in foreign tax havens, an amount exceeding $300 billion.
However, the experiences of Egypt and Tunisia showed that although asset freezes could be arranged within months, repatriating the money can take many years.
Cairo has tried unsuccessfully for five years to retrieve about 85 million pounds in British bank accounts belonging to the inner circle of former President Hosni Mubarak.
British officials have said they are bound by British law, which requires Egyptians to provide them with criminal convictions first.
Tunisia has so far recovered only a small portion of about $35 million claimed from Switzerland following the 2011 revolution that inspired the Arab Spring uprising.
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