Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced on Sunday that special units of anti-corruption prosecutors have been established to “protect the homeland and its resources, maintain public money and protect the integrity of the public employment.”
The announcement comes after a massive anti-corruption crackdown spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that saw numerous royals and prominent Saudi businessmen placed in detention until settlements were reached, netting the government over $106 billion in recovered assets.
Various analyses of the crackdown viewed it as a necessary step for Saudi Arabia to streamline its famously inefficient government, a desperate clawback of resources appropriated by self-indulgent members of the huge royal family, a vital step in persuading international investors to put money into a dramatically reformed economy, a bid by the crown prince to weaken his rivals before he assumes the throne, or all of the above.
The New York Times (NYT) added weight to the more cynical interpretation of the anti-corruption drive on Sunday by reporting that a “large sector of Saudi Arabia’s movers and shakers are living in fear and uncertainty.”
Not only are many wealthy and powerful Saudis suddenly under guard, forbidden to travel, or even monitored with electronic ankle bracelets, but there have been allegations of “coercion and physical abuse” against detainees.
One individual, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani of the Saudi National Guard, reportedly died in custody with “a neck that appeared twisted, a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse.” Qahtani seems to have been detained not for personal corruption, but because investigators wanted him to provide damaging information about Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a son of the previous king and possible rival to Prince Mohammed.
Some former detainees told the NYT they have effectively been looted of their business holdings and private possessions, often without the benefit of due process or even formally specified charges. Critics say promises of transparency in the anti-corruption drive have not been kept, which is likely to make investors more nervous about doing business in the Kingdom, fearful that joint enterprises could be seized or vital business partners arrested without warning.
The most cynical accounts of the anti-corruption crackdown argue that Saudi government may or may not be less corrupt and inefficient now, but Prince Mohammed unquestionably commands a great deal more money than he used to, while his most dangerous rivals are either fearfully subdued or actively under surveillance.
The Saudi government categorically denied the allegations of abuse and oppression made in the New York Times article, insisting that stern measures were needed to reform the Saudi system and the public supports both the anti-corruption campaign and Crown Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda.
Saudi Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Moajab said the new anti-corruption prosecutorial units were created “within the framework of King Salman’s keenness to combat corruption in all its forms,” and will be supported with a conference of local and foreign experts in April focusing on “the protection of integrity and fighting corruption in privatization programs.”
The message is therefore sent that the government is serious about combating corruption as cultural and economic reforms move forward; the recent crackdown looks more sincere if an ongoing commitment to clean government is demonstrated.