RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia announced Thursday it has detained 201 people as part of a sweeping probe, estimating that at least $100 billion has been misused through embezzlement and corruption in past decades.
The kingdom’s Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement that 208 people had been called in for questioning since Saturday evening, and that seven people were released without charge, leaving 201 people still in detention.
The figure released by the government is far larger than previously reported, as it appears more arrests were made throughout the week.
Overnight Saturday, when the surprise arrests began, 11 princes and 38 officials and businessmen had been detained. They are being held at five-star hotels across the country, including the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
Critics and observers say the purge that has targeted top princes, officials, military officers and businessmen is a power grab by the crown prince to sideline potential rivals and critics.
Among those detained are billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, including Prince Miteb, who until Saturday had headed the powerful National Guard before he was ousted and detained. Prince Miteb was once a contender for the throne and was believed to be opposed to the king’s 32-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, becoming successor as crown prince.
The crown prince is leading the probe as the head of a newly formed anti-corruption committee.
“The potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large,” the attorney general said, adding that based on investigations over the past three years, at least $100 billion has been misused through corruption.
The government has declined to name the individuals being questioned, saying it is respecting their privacy during this phase of the process.
An estimated 1,700 bank accounts belonging to individuals have been frozen. Al-Mojeb confirmed that action was taken to suspend personal bank accounts, but did not disclose any figures. The government has stressed that only personal accounts have been frozen, leaving companies and businesses untouched so far.
For years, Saudis have complained of rampant corruption and misuse of public funds by top officials in a system where nepotism is also widespread.
Royal family members have long received undisclosed monthly stipends from state coffers built up during years of higher oil prices. The government, however, has been forced to introduce austerity measures since oil prices fell three years ago, reducing subsidies and driving up costs for average Saudi nationals.
Still, Saudi observer Thomas Lippmann says he believes the anti-corruption probe is “a power grab” because it targets only select members of the royal family and business community. He says it is also difficult to draw the line between what constitutes corruption in Saudi Arabia and how business deals, contracts and access have been won over the years.
“I don’t believe for a minute this is really about getting rid of corruption,” said Lippman, author of “Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.”