WASHINGTON - Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi is a billionaire, and by most estimates, one of the richest African-born people in the world. He travels the globe managing his businesses and meeting with heads of state.
But he now finds himself in the midst of an anti-corruption sweep in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested in the Saudi kingdom last Saturday, and he is one of dozens of elite detainees sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a well-guarded ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, awaiting the next steps by Saudi authorities.
The exact charges are unclear, but in an email to VOA, Tim Pendry, al-Amoudi’s London-based spokesman, insisted the arrest would not affect al-Amoudi’s international business empire.
“As inquiries take place in Saudi Arabia concerning certain allegations, which the Sheikh strongly refutes, this is an internal matter for the Kingdom,” Pendry said. “We have no further comment to make other than to say that the overseas businesses owned by the Sheikh remain unaffected by this development.”
The Saudi government released a statement on Tuesday aimed at reassuring investors with ties to any of the individuals arrested. It said that only personal bank accounts have been frozen, and related businesses would not be affected.
Al-Amoudi was born in Dessie, Ethiopia, in 1946 to an Ethiopian mother and a Saudi father. He immigrated to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1960s and made his first billion two decades later with a construction contract to build an underground oil storage facility.
Since then, his empire has grown across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and it includes Sweden’s largest petroleum refiner. According to Bloomberg, his net worth is just shy of $10 billion.
Ethiopians are closely watching developments in the case. Henok Gabisa, a visiting academic fellow at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia, has tracked al-Amoudi’s career, and says al-Amoudi has invested a large portion of his portfolio - $3.4 billion - in Ethiopia, where he holds interests in oil, gold mines, agriculture and cement.
Gabisa questions al-Amoudi’s legal ownership of these investments. Saudi Arabia doesn't recognize dual citizenship, so al-Amoudi would have given up his Ethiopian passport when he emigrated.
“Even though he was born in Ethiopia, he’s a Saudi citizen,” Gabisa said. “Ethiopian law is very restrictive as to how foreign citizens can invest in Ethiopia, but this guy has an opening. He literally has a blank check as to how he invests in Ethiopia.”
In recent years, al-Amoudi has run into difficulties in his country of birth. He is invested heavily in the restive Oromia region, where his Derba MIDROC company operates a pumice mine for cement, along with a gold mine.
Following protests and attacks on local businesses by unemployed youth, local governors stopped work at his mine and demanded that al-Amoudi allow local youths to operate the mine, according to Bloomberg.
“Recently he had a falling out with the Oromia regional governors because they were trying to take away some of these businesses and redistribute them to the youth,” said Gabisa.
Gabisa said that people from Oromia have not, for the most part, benefited from al-Amoudi’s investments.
“If you see the livelihood of some of the people in Lega Dembi - they don’t have any school, access to clinic or employment,” Gabisa said, speaking of the billionaire's gold mine in the region. “But most of the fortune of this billionaire comes from this area. He harvests about 5,000 kilograms of gold [annually] from that area.”