Contractors stiffed by Saudi Prince for construction of venue for secret billionaires' meeting reveal potential plot to challenge MBS
A new legal case by a group of contractors provides new potential insights into the events surrounding the detention of at least one of the 11 Saudi princes arrested shortly after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed power.
In November 2017, several Saudi elites were corralled in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel and placed under house arrest, including 11 members of the royal family. Among them was Prince Turki bin Abdullah, who was charged with corruption stemming from his management of the Riyadh Metro project he initiated, but Saudi insiders suspect that his arrest may have had an even more sinister story behind it.
* See: A year after the Ritz-Carlton roundup, Saudi elites remain jailed by the crown prince - Washington Post
“All of those detained were seen as potential rivals to Mohammed bin Salman,” explains Radha Stirling, founder and CEO of Due Process International and Interpol reform organisation IPEX, “It is well-known that divisions and enmity exist within different branches of the Saudi royal family, and MBS wanted to pre-empt any potential challenges to his authority. The arrests amounted to a purge in the eyes of most observers, but until this case, there was only conjecture about the extent of Prince Turki’s ambitions. Most people thought the purge was a symbolic show of force, not a response to a genuine challenge to Mohammed bin Salman’s power. However, the facts around the current case indicate that Turki may well have been making a play for greater influence.”
The Dubai-based contractors, headed by a Jordanian national, were hired in 2016 to work on a secret project in the desert, the Tuwaiq Oasis. The project was the construction of a remotely-located luxury venue two hours outside Riyadh that would be used only once for an exclusive meeting between Prince Turki and an elite collection of international billionaires, known as “the Rare 10”. Turki set up a number of buffers between himself and the project right from the beginning, delegating supervision and budget allocation to intermediaries.
The money for the project was to be first channeled through Major General Ali Al-Qahtani, the prince’s right-hand man, and then through a front company called Althat Arabia, under the direction of Mohammed Mansour, who would be in charge of overseeing the project.
This convoluted management structure caused the project to encounter endless problems, with payments being regularly delayed to the contractors, and basic logistics issues being neglected by Turki’s designated supervisors. The prince’s apparent desire to maintain his distance from the Tuwaiq Oasis project very nearly resulted in it failing to meet completion on time, had the contractors not worked relentlessly to meet the deadline, despite enormous complications.
In the end, Tuwaiq was built, and the secretive billionaire’s conference was held. Secured by Matt Wollman, attendees included some of the most influential, and in hindsight, perhaps most strategic figures in the worlds of venture capital, industry, law, and security: Kimbal Musk from Tesla, Scot Jarvis of Kratos Defense, John Cushman III of Cushman and Wakefield, Tracy Krohn of W&T Offshore, Richard Ziman of Rexford Industrial Realty, Michael Riady of Lippo Group, Lim Chee Wah from the Genting Group – who, along with Prince Turki himself, is linked to the 1MDB financial scandal involving Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund and disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Also in attendance were: Sky Dayton of Joby Aviation, Shervin Pishevar from Virgin Hyperloop One and Sherpa Capital, David Nazarian of Nîmes Capital, Phillip Nazarian of Nimes Real Estate, Henry St. George from the Grand Bahama Port Authority, Jahm Najafi of Najafi Companies, George Matelich of Kelso Private Equity, Joe Lonsdale from 8 VC, Michael Tang from National Material LP, Thomas Girardi of Girardi & Keese, and Gary Winnick of Winnick & Co.
Given this guest list, it is self-evident why Prince Turki wanted to keep the “Rare 10” meeting a secret. Deals made with this assortment of power players would unquestionably be viewed by Mohammed bin Salman as an existential threat to his authority.
After Tuwaiq’s completion, and after the “Rare 10” event was held, Turki wanted to completely separate himself from the project; the contractors were aggressively refused payment for their work and even threatened with legal cases and being listed on Interpol, in an apparent attempt to silence them and erase any possible trace of Turki’s secret meeting.
“It has become almost common practice in the Gulf for local owners and investors to breach contractual obligations with foreign business people, refuse payment, expropriate funds, illegally cash security cheques, and to then pre-emptively register criminal complaints against their victims to cover up their own actions,” Stirling explains, “This is frequently the case when locals happen to be people in high positions; members of the royal family, government officials, or members of a particularly large and influential tribe. The court systems in the Gulf are not independent, and there is tremendous judicial bias in favour of powerful locals against foreign nationals, so conviction is guaranteed. It is also understood that members of a ruling family can act with impunity in most cases, especially against foreigners. Another prevalent tactic is to either threaten to list a foreign national on Interpol, or to actually have them subjected to a Red Notice on the basis of fabricated charges. These Notices can be used both for extortionary purposes or simply to neutralize any effort that person might make to secure justice. The Gulf States are notorious for their habitual abuse of the Interpol system.”
According to the contractors’ lawyer, Dr. Jonathan Levy, Turki’s family is still very powerful in Saudi Arabia despite the fact Turki is seen as enemy number one of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman: “We don’t know exactly what sort of arrangement Turki made with the billionaires, but after the meeting took place, Turki reneged on his contract. My clients are now coming forward in the hope the Saudi government will step in.” Dr Levy went on to say: “If deals were made at Tuwaiq Oasis by the now disgraced prince, that too will be revealed. My clients will not keep silent about this especially after the prince’s family involved Interpol in an attempt to keep everyone quiet.”
“The combined guest list of Prince Turki’s event at Tuwaiq Oasis represented a powerful nexus of financial, security, and technological global elites,” Stirling notes, “If the purpose of this meeting was not related to the prince’s personal ambitions, but to the development and interests of the Kingdom, it would have likely taken place at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh; not at a secretly constructed venue in the middle of the desert, which was subsequently abandoned; with the contractors who built it denied their payment, intimidated, and placed on Interpol like fugitives, in an attempt to completely rub the event out of history. It is a fair guess that, if Saudi authorities investigate the claims of the contractors in this case, they will discover that Prince Turki was involved in something much more serious than corrupt kickbacks from an infrastructure project, and that his plans recruited some of the most influential players in the international private sector, many of whom continue to operate and invest inside Saudi Arabia.”