DUBAI/KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi authorities are preparing to auction billions of dollars of real estate and cars belonging to billionaire Maan al-Sanea and his company as they look to hasten an end to one of the kingdom’s longest-running debt disputes.
The planned sale is the latest signal that Saudi Arabia is serious about holding its elites to account. In an anti-corruption crackdown last November, authorities detained scores of senior officials on charges of alleged graft. Most have been released after being exonerated or agreeing to give the state money, assets or real estate.
The al-Sanea case is separate from the main anti-graft campaign. The businessman -– in 2007 he was ranked by Forbes as one of the world’s 100 richest people -– was detained by authorities late last year for unpaid debt dating back to 2009 when his company, Saad Group, defaulted on debts.
Creditors have spent the past nine years pursuing Saad, which is based in the city of Khobar in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, for debt that some estimate to be between 40 billion riyals ($10.67 billion) and 60 billion riyals.
Investors see the case as a litmus test of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to reforms.
Etqaan Alliance, the consortium appointed by Saudi authorities to liquidate assets owned by al-Sanea and the company in an effort to repay creditors, plans to begin selling the company’s assets in Saudi Arabia, according to several sources familiar with the matter. The sales will happen in the coming weeks, the sources said.
The liquidator has produced a slick video that it has posted on YouTube with the tagline “the sale everyone has been waiting for in Khobar” featuring some of the properties and land to be sold.
A brochure accompanying the sale includes a list of 20 plots of land owned by Saad Trading, part of Saad Group, and al-Sanea. The properties are mostly located in Khobar. The largest unit is a 484,407 square meter plot of land that includes buildings and a sewage water treatment plant.
The brochure does not include valuations, but the sources said the real estate was valued at around 4.4 billion riyals, based on an official list of real estate provided to authorities.
A source at the Ministry of Justice confirmed to Reuters an auction would be launched this month to sell vehicles, equipment, a large quantity of building materials and some property before the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which starts in May.
According to the sources who have seen the official list provided to authorities, Saad owns an estimated 3.5 bln riyals of real estate, while al-Sanea personally owns an estimated 6.8 bln riyals. Much of that is in Riyadh, Dammam and Khobar.
Reuters was unable to verify whether all of that real estate will be auctioned by Etqaan or the number of vehicles that will be sold. Saad owns 923 vehicles, including trucks, buses and cars, according to the sources who had seen the list provided to authorities, while al-Sanea has 26 vehicles, including a Rolls Royce, a Hummer, and Cadillac Concord.
The sale does not include the 750-bed Saad Specialist Hospital in Khobar, which the government is in talks with private companies to run, or foreign assets owned by al-Sanea or Saad.
The auction is set to take place a few weeks after the government wound down the anti-corruption crackdown that involved the detention of scores of senior Saudi officials, including princes, in Riyadh’s luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The government has said the process raised more than $100 billion, mostly in the form of land, stakes in businesses and other illiquid assets rather than cash.
The proceeds from Etqaan’s auction will be distributed to creditors via a legal process overseen by a three-judge tribunal set up in 2016 to handle claims against Saad and Ahmad Hamad al-Gosaibi & Bros Co, another big local conglomerate that defaulted on debt in 2009.
Creditors have pursued legal battles over the debt around the world for almost a decade, while the two groups have squabbled over which of them is to blame for the meltdown.
In an effort to stave off the liquidation process, Saad late last year launched its own process to engage with creditors. It hired a financial consultancy, Reemas Group, to offer a proposed settlement covering $4 bln in debt.
Reemas did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Saad Group has been told by the court that it needs to obtain the agreement of creditors to its plan as soon as possible and then the court will consider the proposal, according to the sources.
In an email sent by Reemas last year, it told creditors its intention was to secure preliminary consent from the majority of lenders to its proposal to put the auction process at a halt.
(GRAPHIC - Saudi royal family arrests: reut.rs/2DHWWBd)
Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia