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Why is the Saudi crown prince taking an interest in the Arab Bank?

Updated December 23, 2017


PALESTINIAN billionaire Sabih al-Masri, who returned to Jordan earlier this week after his release in Saudi Arabia.—Reuters
PALESTINIAN billionaire Sabih al-Masri, who returned to Jordan earlier this week after his release in Saudi Arabia.—Reuters

“THEY that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind,” according to that infamous proverb — along with the Book of Hosea and Bomber Harris. But what wind did our favourite crown prince of Saudi Arabia think he was sowing when he slammed one of the richest Palestinians in his Kingdom into temporary custody a few days ago?

By arresting Sabih al-Masri, the Palestinian billionaire and much-trusted banker, a few days ago, Mohammad bin Salman created fury in the neighbouring Kingdom of Jordan where tens of thousands of Palestinians — many of them refugees from occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank — have invested millions in the Arab Bank.

And you can see why. Masri is the president of the Arab Bank, and the Palestinians — most of whom have absolutely no connection with Saudi Arabia — have collectively invested billions of life savings in the bank. And they knew all too well that our beloved crown prince has found a unique way of releasing his hostage businessmen and princes in Riyadh. He asks them to “pay back” their supposedly corrupt earnings to Saudi Arabia. Was Mohammed bin Salman about to gouge the Arab Bank, the Palestinians of Jordan asked, in return for Masri’s release — and seize their life savings in Jordan?

Against the advice of friends, Masri had returned to Saudi Arabia over a week ago to preside over a series of meetings of other companies he controls in the Kingdom. He was questioned, according to his friends, about his companies and business associates, and subsequently released. And then, with Hariri-like love for his adopted country, he coyly told Reuters that “all is well and I am happy and everyone shows me great respect here”. I bet they do, I said to myself when I read that.

But you can see why the Palestinians were worried. Masri is the most influential businessman in Jordan and the occupied territories. He comes originally from Nablus — where his even richer and more influential billionaire cousin Mounib, a philanthropist variously known as the richest Palestinian in the world and the “Godfather”, owns a pseudo-renaissance palace — and made a fortune supplying food to US-led coalition troops in Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein.

The Arab Bank, with reported assets of $47 billion, made profits of $533 million last year. Last February, Masri and 40 of his business chums bought up shares in the Arab Bank which had belonged to Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who was himself briefly seized in Saudi Arabia and forced to “resign” until freed to “de-resign” in Beirut a couple of weeks later.

You can see why MBS took a close interest in the Masri accounts. There is no evidence he got his teeth into any Masri money — or tried to — but many Palestinians regard this as a close-run thing. They are all too well aware that at the Islamic summit in Istanbul this month, the Saudi crown prince sent a mere under-minister to represent the Kingdom in the Muslim protest against Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Not much political support for the Palestinians there.

Jordan itself regards the Arab Bank as the economic “crown jewels” of the nation, but 23 per cent of the bank’s business is believed to be conducted in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. But this isn’t the only effect the ambitious crown prince of Saudi Arabia has been having in recent days. For now we hear that Qatar — sanctioned and isolated by the Saudis and their regional mates (principally the United Arab Emirates) — has plans to buy more French weapons from Jupiter himself, the French president who has a smile for every Arab dictator in the Middle East.

Publicly, the Emir of Qatar — understandably worried that his Saudi brothers may one day try to invade him — has decided to add another 12 Dassault Rafale delta-wing fighter aircraft to the 24 already on order from the French arms manufacturer. According to anonymous folk in the French military, however, the Emir of Qatar has now placed an option on another 36 of the combat aircraft — potentially making him Dassault’s biggest export client.

One should note here the Western connections of some of the chaps in this story. The Qatari emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is an old boy of Sherbourne and Harrow (and Sandhurst, of course). Dassault owns Le Figaro newspaper (so no critical comment there on the up-arming of the Qataris). Masri’s cousin Mounib — who has probably done more for Palestinian “unity” than any other single Palestinian — has $1.5bn worth of business in London. Saad Hariri holds French as well as Saudi and Lebanese citizenship. Sabih Masri holds Irish citizenship.

But back to the Emir of Qatar’s hardware. He has already bought 36 American F-15s, and the British ministry of defence — ever lovers of Gulf peace — are proposing to sell 24 Typhoons to Qatar. But this creates a bit of a problem. For the tiny emirate may be ready to fight off all aggressors (including the esteemed crown prince of Saudi Arabia, of course) but Qatar is soon going to have more planes than pilots. But “don’t worry”, as France’s Le Canard enchaine (the most well-connected French paper when it comes to the Middle East) advised its readers last week: Pakistani, Egyptian and other pilots are already flying for the Qataris. And they’ll be more soon.

A problem, of course, if Qatar’s Pakistani pilots have to fly against Pakistani troops fighting for the Saudis. And “poor” old Emmanuel Macron also has other planes to sell to his other clients in the Gulf. Including the UAE, Egypt — and Saudi Arabia! At least he’s being fair. But it does make Sabih Masri’s life look a lot less dramatic. And safer.

—By arrangement with The Independent

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2017