The sons of the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s biggest dairy company were among 11 princes detained last week for what authorities said was an unlawful protest over the government’s decision to stop paying their utility bills, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
Princes Naif bin Sultan and Saud bin Sultan, sons of billionaire Prince Sultan bin Mohammed Al Kabeer - founder and chairman of Almarai Co - were among the group of royal family members held on Thursday, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Prince Naif is also an Almarai board member and chairman of Zain Saudi, the kingdom’s third-largest telecommunications operator. Another Saudi prince circulated a voice recording challenging the official account of the arrests.
The detentions are the latest in a series of unprecedented moves by the government as 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes up the kingdom’s traditional power structures.
Other royal family members, including billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, were detained in November when authorities swept up dozens of Saudi Arabia’s richest as part of a declared war on corruption.
Security services arrested the 11 princes on Thursday after they staged a sit-in and refused to leave the historic Qasr Al-Hokm palace in old Riyadh, Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb said in an emailed statement on Saturday.
The princes, who objected to a decree that ordered the state to stop paying their electricity and water bills, will be held at al-Ha’er maximum security prison pending their trial, Al Mojeb said.
The princes were also seeking compensation for a death sentence that was issued against one of their cousins - who had been convicted of killing another man and executed in 2016 - according to Al Mojeb’s statement.
Almarai declined to comment. Zain Saudi could not be reached for comment. Prince Sultan did not immediately respond to a request for comment placed through his office manager. In response to questions, the government’s Center for International Communication referred Bloomberg to the attorney general’s Saturday statement.
The anti-graft drive appeared designed to appease citizens who are bearing the brunt of austerity measures and complaining, privately and on social media, that the nation’s elite were above the law.
A member of the royal family circulated a voice message on Whatsapp calling the accusations against the princes “completely false” and “not believable,” according to a recording obtained by Bloomberg and verified by two people familiar with the matter.
In the recording, Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed questions how the princes could have had issues with utility bills, saying that all of the princes detained “have great financial capabilities, far from concerns and financial problems, and were raised by their fathers to be obedient” to the king.
The Al Kabeer branch of the royal family includes many prominent businessmen, but they are not descendants of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz, and are generally far from the center of political power.
Contacted through the Saudi Arabian Maritime Sports Federation, which he heads, and through a company he runs, Prince Abdullah bin Saud declined to comment.
In the voice message, Prince Abdullah said the detained princes had accompanied a relative of theirs to the Riyadh governorate building after he was summoned for questioning about “a previous job of his.”
When they arrived, they were prevented from entering by guards “in a provocative way that they were not accustomed to any citizen being dealt with,” he said. Some of the princes were “overcome by the excitement of youth,” fistfights broke out, and they were arrested, he said.
Prince Abdullah praised the leadership of King Salman and Prince Mohammed and criticized “the attempts of some to create division and schism within the royal family.”
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