Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS, for short), has been cleaning house. In the last month, he has arrested 11 princes, four ministers, and dozens of ex-ministers, all of whom are being held in five star hotels across Riyadh. He has also detained more than 200 others for questioning. Scores of commentators and media personalities have praised MBS’s anticorruption purge (see here and here), while others have condemned it (see here and here), which goes to show just how difficult it is to understand what the recent anticorruption purge means in the context of a country like Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, in Saudi Arabia, any measure to address corruption seems to be cause for optimism. Taken against the backdrop of the many social reforms advanced by MBS, ranging from permitting women to drive, diversifying the economy, and moderating the religious establishment’s brand of Islam, the anticorruption measures appear to be part of a genuine effort to reform Saudi Arabian society. Yet this optimistic assessment naively conflates a progressive social agenda that taps into our hopes for Saudi Arabia’s future (and the Middle East’s writ large) with what Saudi Arabia’s anticorruption purge really is: an attempt to consolidate MBS’s power and reassure foreign investors.
To understand the context for the recent anticorruption arrests, it’s important to keep in mind that when King Salman named MBS Crown Prince in 2016, he swept aside MBS’s cousin, MBS bin Niyef, upsetting centuries of tradition. It’s rumored that King Salman, now 79 years old, has dementia and will soon die, so it is important for MBS to quell his rivals now because he could become King at any moment. Many of those arrested were people aligned to bin Niyef, such as the head of the national guard, or who were otherwise considered a threat to MBS’s rule, such as the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Furthermore, Prince Mohammed has pursued ambitious (and controversial) foreign and domestic policy initiatives, and eliminating his political opposition now helps shore up his agenda.
Furthermore, the manner in which the anticorruption arrests were conducted casts doubt on their sincerity and legitimacy. The Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee was established on a Saturday and arrests were made only hours later, based on evidence that the kingdom’s Attorney General, Shikh Saud al-Mojeb, said was derived from three years of investigations. Although the first Saudi anticorruption group (the Royal Saudi Political Organization) was formed in 2003 by a member of the royal family, there is no indication that the older anticorruption group played any role in the current arrests, making it much more likely that the Supreme Anti-Corruption Commission was established to create a pretext for the arrest of MBS’s rivals. Under the circumstances, it seems likely that MBS handed his newly formed Commission a list of people to arrest. And it’s probably no coincidence that those arrestees just happened to also be his political rivals.
An additional motivation for the anticorruption purge may be to convince foreign investors that Saudi Arabia is a reformed and progressive nation, worthy of an infusion of desperately needed foreign investment—particularly in the context of the planned IPO of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Aramco. (Although the IPO is officially “on track,” global investors remain skeptical, partly because the current prognosis for oil is poor, but also partly because Saudi Arabia is perceived as a risky market for investment.) MBS’s overnight anticorruption purge, and the concomitant creation of new anticorruption institutions, may be a desperate attempt to convince foreign investors of Saudi Arabia’s modernity. While this economic motivation does not necessarily mean that the anticorruption drive isn’t genuine, nonetheless it does suggest reasons for skepticism.
Another reason to doubt both the sincerity of the anticorruption drive and its prospects for long-term success is the fact that Saudi Arabia’s judicial system is completely unprepared for anticorruption cases. Not one of Saudi Arabia’s three court systems is empowered to hear corruption cases, and although there’s a law on the books prohibiting bribery (the Regulations for Combating Bribery), there doesn’t seem to be any codified law for other types of corruption offense (fraud, money laundering, etc.). While the kingdom’s top clerics made a statement that it was their “Islamic duty” to fight corruption, this does little to provide a legal foundation for the arrests. And indeed, so far none of the individuals arrested have been notified of their charges.
And finally, a troubling and sometimes overlooked feature of the recent anticorruption cases is the fact that many of those arrested have already settled, and in some cases the Saudi Arabian government has demanded 70% of individuals’ wealth in exchange for these settlements. This suggests the worrisome possibility that the anticorruption campaign may be in part a way to replenish state (and MBS’s) coffers.
Of course, the fact that an anticorruption crackdown has distasteful political motivations does not preclude the possibility that the campaign will have, on net, positive effects. Consider China, where critics of President Xi Jinping’s draconian anticorruption program have argued persuasively that a main objective of this campaign is to consolidate President Xi’s power, as discussed on the blog. Yet whatever its motives, it appears that this campaign might actually be making significant progress in the fight against corruption in China, with even critics of the Chinese government pointing out that the crackdown has had a positive impact because Chinese officials now fear asking for bribes (or at least are being more covert about doing so). Yet Saudi Arabia’s situation is much different from China’s. The Chinese Communist Party’s main anticorruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), despite its imperfections and limitations, is much more institutionalized, whereas Saudi Arabia’s anticorruption commission appears to have been conceived overnight. The CCDI, while hardly an independent from the party leadership (such independence doesn’t really exist in China), at least reports to the Party Congress, while Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Anticorruption Committee reports directly to the Prince himself.
It would be nice to believe that MBS is a genuine reformer—a well-educated and worldly young prince who is working to modernize his stodgy, cleric-dominated, non-democratic country. But making investigations overnight, setting up a sham of an anticorruption committee, overlooking the judicial process required for prosecutions, and doing it all either to consolidate power, mollify foreign investors, or both, is not a recipe for genuine anticorruption reform.