Saudi Arabia has released construction magnate Bakr bin Laden, more than three years after his detention in a purge of the kingdom’s elite that upended his vast business empire, sources told AFP.
The former chairman of the Bin Laden Group, Saudi Arabia’s biggest construction company, was reunited last week with his family in the Red Sea city of Jeddah after being freed from an undisclosed detention site, two people close to his family said.
It was unclear whether the release of Bakr, a tycoon in his 70s once seen as a major powerbroker, was provisional as his movements are still curtailed, one of the sources said.
“He was released and told to stay home,” he said.
“People are allowed to visit him.”
His family is “overjoyed”, the second source said, adding they hoped his release was not a temporary goodwill gesture by the government towards the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Bakr, a half-brother of the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was not reachable for comment and Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.
The Bin Laden family, branded as the Rockefellers of Saudi Arabia for their sprawling infrastructure projects, reaped enormous wealth for decades on the back of their proximity to the Al Saud royal family.
But their fortunes tanked following the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has sought to remake the oil-reliant economy and dismantle top-down patronage networks that enriched a handful of elite families.
– Five-star prison –
Bakr and two other siblings, Saad and Saleh, were snared in a November 2017 purge that saw hundreds of royals, tycoons and government ministers locked up for months in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, then widely dubbed a five-star prison.
The unprecedented crackdown, which rattled private investors just as the kingdom sought to lure capital to help diversify the economy, was described by the government as an anti-corruption measure.
But observers widely saw it as a shakedown and power play by Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler known by his acronym MBS.
Most detainees, including Saad and Saleh, were subsequently released after opaque financial “settlements” with the government.
But both brothers were barred from overseas travel and initially made to wear electronic ankle bracelets to track their movements, family sources said.
The government took management control of the debt-saddled Bin Laden group after acquiring the three brothers’ collective 36.2 percent stake in the company, according to an official document seen by AFP.
Authorities also seized assets including private jets and luxury cars, the sources said.
But despite surrendering billions in assets and shares, Bakr was held in detention, with family sources saying authorities freed him temporarily once, in January 2019, so he could attend a family funeral.
He still holds “significant” assets outside the kingdom, and his associates are privy to damning secrets about payouts to royal family members, one of the sources said.
Bakr was never put on trial despite his prolonged detention, the source added, and no specific charges against him have been made public.
The multi-billion dollar Bin Laden empire flourished during the oil boom, bagging lucrative state contracts to build palaces, universities and mosques.
But their so-called special relationship with the royal family changed when King Salman, MBS’s father, took the throne in 2015 following an oil price crash the previous year.
Also contributing to their fall was the family’s closeness to former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was edged out by MBS in 2017 as heir to the throne.
“Big private sector families haven’t fared well as the state seizes assets and drives the transformation of the Saudi economy,” Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.
“The Bin Ladens have been targeted for their proximity to other ruling family rivals… The Al Saud give and the Al Saud take away.”
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