By Tom Arnold
DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has high hopes that a campaign of arrests to crack down on corruption will improve its chances of joining the Financial Action Task Force, a global body dedicated to combatting illicit money flows.
The kingdom, one of only two G20 nations along with Indonesia which is not a FATF member, has tried for years to shake off a reputation as a breeding ground for corruption and terror financing.
Its last attempt to join the inter-governmental body, which has 37 members, was unsuccessful in 2010 and some lobbyists may oppose the new Saudi push before an expected vote mid next year.
But achieving membership offers the possibility of strengthening Riyadh’s international standing at a time when it wants foreign investors to back its multi-billion dollar transformation plan, as well as improving global financial ties for its banks.
Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom detained dozens of senior business people and government officials last month, accusing them of crimes including money laundering although not of terror financing.
Political analysts say the future king has also tried to tighten his grip on power through the purge.
The crackdown – which involved the freezing of more than 2,000 bank accounts and liaising with central banks in among others Switzerland, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – stress-tested the Saudi anti-money laundering system and found it largely effective, say sources familiar with the matter.
The system will undergo further tests in the coming weeks as Saudi Arabia targets around $100 billion of settlements with some of those detained.
“This will strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position as a reformer and its efforts to move closer to a corruption-free society,” said Jaspal Singh, who advises on anti-money laundering in the Middle East and North America.
“Joining FATF sets the ‘tone at the top’ in generating the necessary political will under Prince Mohammad to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in the anti-money laundering and governance space.”
Saudi efforts to join the body are at a critical stage. In the last few weeks it hosted a visit by officials – including FATF staff and members of the body – assessing its bid. The delegates visited public and private sector institutions.
A final decision on the bid, known as the mutual evaluation, is expected when existing members vote in June 2018.
“How soon Saudi Arabia can obtain full membership will depend on the outcomes of the mutual evaluation,” FATF said in a statement sent to Reuters. “If the mutual evaluation is not satisfactory, then the country must agree to an action plan to address the weaknesses identified by the assessment team.”
Saudi Arabia has struggled with allegations that some of its banks have helped to fund terrorists. Its two largest banks, National Commercial Bank and Al Rajhi Bank, were sued in New York as recently as April, along with companies affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s family and several charities, for at least $4.2 billion over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
At the end of 2013, JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) cut its correspondent banking relationship with 500 foreign lenders including Al Rajhi, Reuters previously reported, citing sources.
Al Rajhi has previously said it “has no links to terrorism” and is “committed to operating at the highest levels of compliance” with applicable rules. In response to a Reuters query, it said on Thursday: “JP Morgan re-established its relationship with Al Rajhi Bank in 2017.”
National Commercial Bank did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
While the central bank has maintained Saudi banks have not experienced a dip in correspondent banking relationships, it has said it remains vigilant as any decline could hurt the stability of the financial system and economic growth.
The central bank did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on FATF.
“If you want to eat at top table you have to have top table manners,” said a financial sector source. “The benefits from a banking perspective will be stronger correspondent banking ties.”
Saudi Arabia’s last attempt to join failed when it fell short in its ability to test a relatively new risk framework – the kingdom criminalised money laundering in 2003. The process also exposed a general lack of awareness about illicit financial flows, especially among non-bank financial institutions.
But since then Riyadh has made strides to improve its level of compliance.
For one, Saudi Arabia has massively increased its rate of convictions for terrorist financing. Between 2010 and 2015, it topped the table with 863 convictions, compared with around 100 for the next highest-ranked country, the United States, according to FATF data.
In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has also published new versions of its anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism laws, strengthening due diligence requirements for financial institutions and toughening criminal penalties. Both laws were revised to bring Saudi Arabia more in line with FATF requirements, said a source familiar with the matter.
But some observers have expressed concern about the changes.
“We don’t think Saudi Arabia should be admitted to FATF with the anti-terrorism legislation they have in place in its current form,” said Kay Guinane, director of Washington-based Charity & Security Network, a lobby group for non-profit organisations.
“Our mission is to protect civil society and our concern is that the definition of terrorism is so broad that it’s impossible for civil society to operate in a free and open way. The legislation also does not meet FATF’s recommendations of its members having a risk-based approach.”
(Reporting by Tom Arnold; Additional reporting by Katie Paul in Riyadh; editing by David Stamp)