When Saudi King Abdullah arrived home last week, he came bearing gifts: handouts worth $37 billion, apparently intended to placate Saudis of modest means and insulate the world's biggest oil exporter from the wave of protest sweeping the Arab world.
But some of the biggest handouts over the past two decades have gone to his own extended family. The most common mechanism for distributing Saudi Arabia's wealth to the royal family is the formal, budgeted system of monthly stipends that members of the Al Saud family receive, according to the cable. Managed by the Ministry of Finance's "Office of Decisions and Rules," which acts like a kind of welfare office for Saudi royalty, the royal stipends in the mid-1990s ran from about $800 a month for "the lowliest member of the most remote branch of the family" to $200,000-$270,000 a month for one of the surviving sons of Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Grandchildren received around $27,000 a month, "according to one contact familiar with the stipends" system, the cable says. Great-grandchildren received about $13,000 and great-great- grandchildren $8,000 a month.
"By far the largest is likely royal skimming from the approximately $10 billion in annual off-budget spending controlled by a few key princes," a 1996 American dipomatic cable released by Wikileaks states. Two of those projects -- the Two Holy Mosques Project and the Ministry of Defense's Strategic Storage Project -- are "highly secretive, subject to no Ministry of Finance oversight or controls, transacted through the National Commercial Bank, and widely believed to be a source of substantial revenues" for the then-King and a few of his full brothers. In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador , one Saudi prince, alluding to the off-budget programs, "lamented the travesty that revenues from 'one million barrels of oil per day' go entirely to 'five or six princes,' " according to the cable, which quoted the prince.
Then there was the apparently common practice for royals to borrow money from commercial banks and simply not repay their loans. As a result, the 12 commercial banks in the country were "generally leary of lending to royals." The managing director of a bank in the kingdom told the ambassador that he divided royals into four tiers, according to the cable. The top tier was the most senior princes who, perhaps because they were so wealthy, never asked for loans. The second tier included senior princes who regularly asked for loans. "The bank insists that such loans be 100 percent collateralized by deposits in other accounts at the bank," the cable reports. The third tier included thousands of princes the bank refused to lend to. The fourth tier, "not really royals, are what this banker calls the 'hangers on'."
Another popular money-making scheme saw some "greedy princes" expropriate land from commoners. "Generally, the intent is to resell quickly at huge markup to the government for an upcoming project." By the mid-1990s, a government program to grant land to commoners had dwindled. "Against this backdrop, royal land scams increasingly have become a point of public contention." The cable cites a banker who claimed to have a copy of "written instructions" from one powerful royal that ordered local authorities in the Mecca area to transfer to his name a "Waqf" -- religious endowment -- of a small parcel of land that had been in the hands of one family for centuries. "The banker noted that it was the brazenness of the letter ... that was particularly egregious." Another senior royal was famous for "throwing fences up around vast stretches of government land." The confiscation of land extends to businesses as well, the cable notes. A prominent and wealthy Saudi businessman told the embassy that one reason rich Saudis keep so much money outside the country was to lessen the risk of 'royal expropriation.'
Yet another means of acquiring wealth royals kept the money flowing by sponsoring the residence permits of foreign workers and then requiring them to pay a monthly "fee" of between $30 and $150. "It is common for a prince to sponsor a hundred or more foreigners,"
Despite all the money that has been given to Saudi royals over the years there is not "a significant number of super-rich princes ... In the end," the cable states, Saudi's "royals still seem more adept at squandering than accumulating wealth."
Meantime in the Sultanate of Oman The sultan has ordered the hiring of 50,000 citizens in the aftermath of weekend protests that left at least one person dead and 11 others injured. Sultan Qaboos bin Said also issued royal orders saying job-seekers who register with the Ministry of Manpower will be paid 150 rials (about U.S. $390) per month until they find jobs.