What Drives the Saudi Corruption Purge?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 15, 2017

The last few days have seen important and potentially defining developments in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally cautious and conservative in the areas of domestic social, political, and economic reform, the Saudi leadership has undertaken dramatic steps to address each of those areas. That is at least how some observers have interpreted the recent arrests of a number of princes, business leaders, and government officials. Others see such developments as only the latest iteration of an ongoing power-struggle within the Saudi royal family. Either way, it is clear that the Kingdom is undergoing fundamental changes.

For many, the proposed reforms and the unprecedented high-profile arrests reflect demographic and economic pressures on the country’s leadership. As a recent editorial concerning the efforts of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in The National points out: “In tune with the aspirations of his nation’s youth, who represent 70 per cent of the nation’s population, he has overseen a broad dismantling of orthodoxies…. The announcements of these projects, part of the prince’s Vision 2030 blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s post-oil economy, have been accompanied by substantial political freedoms, the royal decree lifting the ban on female drivers being one of the most significant of all…. Titles, positions, ties and wealth can no longer buy immunity from the law in the transparent and just system Prince Mohammed is striving to usher in. The heightened tensions of the past few days ought not to distract us from the extraordinary transformation that Saudi Arabia is undergoing for the better.”

Arab Times editor-in-chief Ahmed Al-Jarallah sees the recent developments as a necessary step toward ‘fortifying the internal front’ after years of external pressure: “For years, the kingdom has been engaged in confrontation on various aspects, such as its fierce fight against terrorism. For the past three years, it has been combating the Persian expansionism scheme in the southern front of the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, it is natural for the kingdom to focus on fortifying the internal front. Those who misused their influence were oblivious to this, especially when transgressing public funds and rights; hence, the royal decree to form the Higher Council of National Anti-corruption Commission came to complete the internal fortification mechanism of the kingdom. It should not be surprising that once the commission started carrying out its task, it arrested princes, ministers and influential individuals involved in corruption…. Without any doubt, it will complete its task.”

What many of these observations have in common is that, as a recent Khaleej Times editorial suggests “(the) Anti-corruption purge in Saudi was long overdue…. Saudi nationals have long complained of rampant corruption and squandering of public funds. This dismissal is an endeavor by the 32-year-old crown prince to create a corruption-free society, at every strata, and he has rightfully begun from the top. His aim is to attract greater local and international investments by improving the country’s reputation as a place to do business. This, again, is part of a larger effort to diversify the economy and wean it from its dependence on oil revenues.”

In an op-ed written for the Saudi daily Arab News, Maha Akeel believes the reforms and the anti-corruption drive have been a long time coming, and “are an acknowledgment of what went wrong and the desire to correct it; but what needs changing is not just the outer layer. It is more important to address the internal mentality and ideology, while at the same time preserving our natural conservative habits, which have always respected diversity and nourished tolerance, as a Muslim moderate society. This is the second awakening, the real awakening; especially since two weeks after the crown prince’s announcement, our leadership have also decided to take on the genie of corruption, which has hampered development and damaged the economy — finally putting our country on the right path toward progress and growth.”

Given the depth of the changes the proposed reforms envision, some observers are wondering whether the Crown Prince Mohammed has the necessary support to carry them out. Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin argues that in an attempt to “restructure and shift strategy domestically in preparation for a post-oil world, the new Saudi leadership is likely to use Sunni-Shiite antagonism with Iran in foreign policy. The spread of Iran’s influence, thanks to the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, is likely to also give functional leverage to the new crown prince, whose influence in Saudi Arabia is rising with the latest purge in the security bureaucracy and the detention of many princes who could create obstacles to his plans. The purge is seemingly supported by the U.S. and sympathized by Israel….the detentions in Saudi Arabia over the weekend could trigger a chain reaction in the Middle East. It is far from easy to predict where that will end.”

Rather than looking at external developments as a source of legitimacy, The National’s Al Yafai turns his attention to Saudi Arabia’s young population instead: “These changes are really driven by an economic reality, one which Prince Mohammed takes every opportunity to emphasize: 70 per cent of Saudis are under the age of 30…. In the years to come, they will need an economy and a society that meets their needs. But for most Saudis, these extraordinary decisions by the young crown prince seem to fit a context of radical change in a society long resistant to it…. The way to grasp the significant changes taking place in the kingdom is to understand the crown prince as a politician seeking a new consensus for change. Piece together his decisions and it is clear he is courting various aspects of Saudi society, seeking buy-in for these changes. Foremost is the youth vote…. The crown prince is certainly moving fast, in part … because he appears, for now, to have the country’s youth on his side as well.”

As a result, rather than seeing the recent events as a ‘palace coup’, Faisal Abbas cautions against misunderstanding the real impetus for reform, i.e., the importance of pushing through economic reforms, including ridding the country of corruption: “One of the most imaginative, and indeed false, hypotheses was that the rounding up of potentially corrupt princes and businessmen was part of an internal power struggle and a score-settling exercise…. anyone who understands who is who in Riyadh knows only too well that none of those arrested — whether royals or non-royals — has or would have had any political sway in the current climate whatsoever…. We need to understand that the days when things took too long to happen — if they happened at all — are forever gone. The exciting part is that thanks to the ambitious reforms being implemented under Vision 2030, we are finally living in a country where anything can happen.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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