CAIRO — It goes well beyond the average family squabble. For months, two billionaire families in Saudi Arabia, linked by marriage, have been locked in a bitter legal battle centered on an estimated $22 billion debt implosion and allegations of billions of dollars in fraud.
Bank accounts have been frozen. International banks, facing billions in outstanding debt, have filed suit. Claims of scapegoating and family jealousies have splashed across Mideast newspapers.
The dispute between Maan al-Sanea and his Saad Group and Ahmad Hamad al-Gosaibi and Bros., or AHAB – two of Saudi Arabia's most prominent private conglomerates – threatens to cast a pall over Saudi Arabia's image at a time when the global meltdown and credit crisis already have squeezed the kingdom's companies.
It also has raised new questions whether Saudi's financial and corporate systems – still dominated by family firms and personal relationships – are transparent enough to allow outside lenders to make sound decisions. That worry has the potential to impact investment in the kingdom long term.
"During the crisis, if anything at all, transparency has deteriorated, and that is one of the key cultural changes that has to take place, particularly among family owned companies – where the tendency to be opaque is far greater," said Philipp Lotter, the Dubai-based senior vice president of Moody's Investor's Service.
Added Rahul Shah, a Dubai-based analyst with Deutsche Bank: "The feeling at the moment is that without greater disclosure, it's difficult to commit capital."
The details of the case have trickled out slowly, mostly in court cases filed in the United States and London.
Little has come from either company or, for that matter, from authorities in Saudi Arabia. Such family run businesses have traditionally been treated with deference.
The fight has so far remained a civil matter, with no known criminal charges.
The saga hinges on claims by the al-Gosaibi family that al-Sanea – Saad's chairman and a major HSBC stakeholder who is also married to a daughter of the al-Gosaibi patriarch – defrauded them of over $9 billion. Al-Sanea was listed in March by Forbes as the world's 62nd richest person.
According to a claim outlined in a New York lawsuit, al-Sanea's actions eventually caused the company to default on billions in debt to international banks.
The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, the country's central bank, offered the first hint that trouble was brewing. A letter sent to the country's lenders in May ordered a freeze on the accounts of al-Sanea, as well as those of several family members, including his wife.
The central bank offered no details, which prompted several international ratings agencies to first downgrade, then withdraw, their ratings for Saad Group and then for AHAB.
The central bank has since largely remained silent, and calls and e-mails to both Saad and AHAB were not answered.
Saad Group – whose holdings include hospitals, travel firms, banks and financial services companies – explained at the time that it was facing a "short-term liquidity squeeze" linked to the global credit crunch. It attributed that to factors including the "failure of companies owned by a prominent Saudi family business and the unexpected and unprecedented regional reaction to that failure."
The company said debt restructuring was under way.
It soon became clear that the prominent Saudi family business was AHAB, and the failing companies included The International Banking Co., a Bahrain-based bank owned by AHAB that had defaulted on some debts.
Media reports indicated that al-Sanea had served as TIBC's chairman.
Saad officials, however, said that although al-Sanea had once served as TIBC's managing director, he was no longer with the company. A later statement contended that al-Sanea had only arms-length commercial dealings with AHAB, whose holdings range from construction to bottling Pepsi.
Regardless, Mideast and Western banks soon were forced to take stock of their exposure to the two companies' bad debts, resulting in the litigation.
Mideast newspapers have since splashed details of fierce accusations and estranged ties among the two family camps inside Saudi Arabia.
The bad debts, estimated at around $22 billion in total, are widely believed to be one of the biggest hits the region has endured during the global meltdown.
"The idea that the global financial crisis had a minimal impact on the Saudis besides that of the low oil prices is not the case," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist with Banque Saudi Fransi-Credit Agricole Group in Riyadh. "Obviously the crisis impacted the corporate side, and at least tainted the image of the corporate sector which in its majority remains sound.
Yet the dispute is by no means the death knell for the Saudi economy – the Arab world's largest. Analysts believe, instead, that the bulk of the losses are being shouldered by Western and non-Saudi Mideast banks, raising questions about the risk of future investments.
"It would be wrong to make blanket assumptions," said Moody's Lotter. "But it has highlighted the risks. ... I think that is something that lenders, and ourselves as a ratings agency, will have to factor into our assessments going forward."
(This version CORRECTS the name of the bank to Banque Saudi Fransi-Credit Agricole Group.)