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Why Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption crackdown has little to do with corruption

First, it’s intended to remove any doubt that the crown prince will become king. Second, it’s a message that planned economic reforms won’t be another opportunity for wealthy insiders to get even richer.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic plan aims to wean Saudi Arabia off the oil revenue that supports most of the government and the economy.
Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

The young prince has declared war on corruption. He has rounded up radical Saudi clerics. He is allowing women to drive, and giving them a central role in his plans for the economy. He is challenging Iran across the Middle East.

There are some things to like about Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince who is shaking up sclerotic Saudi Arabia, particularly in domestic policy. But there’s also reasons to be wary, given that his youthful lack of subtlety and patience-bordering-on-arrogance could cost him — and the region — dearly.

If you promise an economic revolution, you’d better deliver. And although there are many who want to get tough with Iran, including the Saudis’ new best friend in Washington, the crown prince hasn’t yet shown that he can finish what he starts. It would be wise to move cautiously.

The anti-corruption sweep launched in the past week has hit the kingdom like an earthquake. Among those arrested were princes, government officials, the head of a branch of the military, owners of television networks and one of the richest men in the world. 

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But the likely reasons for the crackdown have little to do with actual corruption. First, it’s intended to remove any doubt that the crown prince, who is widely known by the initials MBS, will become king. The previous two crown princes were pushed aside before reaching the throne, including the cousin he replaced less than six months ago. If history is a guide, MBS could be king for half a century.

It’s also a message that the planned economic reforms — particularly the sale of 5 percent of state oil company Aramco — won’t be another opportunity for princes and wealthy insiders to get even richer. 

Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic plan aims to wean Saudi Arabia off the oil revenue that supports most of the government and the economy.  Almost everyone agrees that’s long overdue. To pull it off, he needs cash. But oil prices are low, currency reserves are dropping and capital fleeing. There are questions whether the Aramco sale would bring in as much as he wants. 

He needs to cut generous government benefits, and the pay packets of public employees. He’s tried the latter already, but had to back off.

He’ll also need Saudi Arabia’s women. Granting permission for them to drive has garnered huge headlines, but women have made other strides in a highly restrictive society.  Karen Elliott House, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, points out in this detailed assessment of changes in Saudi Arabia that there already are plenty of well-educated, ambitious women. A woman leads the stock exchange and another is in charge of a major bank. “Both men and women agree that women are not only better educated, but also more motivated and productive employees than their male counterparts,” House said.

Vision 2030 appears to be off to a slow start. Writing in the New Yorker, veteran Middle East analyst Robin Wright quotes Bruce Riedel, a former CIA, Pentagon and National Security Council staffer, as saying it is taking on “more and more the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme.”

On the other hand, careful social reforms, which started under the prince’s father, King Salman, are gaining traction. Religious police lost the power to arrest. Hardline Islamic preachers have been rounded up, giving changes a chance to take root. Women are optimistic.

But what if the economic transition stalls? What if there are few jobs for the legions of young people, and particularly for those eager women? What if there is just as much corruption, and if fears of instability discourage investors? 

Saudis have been deferential to a huge royal family that has ruled through collaboration and spread enough of the wealth around. Will they be as forgiving if times are not so good, and they can identify a single individual to blame? Those hardline clerics aren’t going away. Neither are the princes who were accused of corruption and arrested last weekend. 

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Then there’s Iran. As defense minister two years ago, MBS launched military action in Yemen against rebels he considers Iranian proxies, pushing the country into what the U.N. declared the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 8,000 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians. House cites estimates that Saudi Arabia is spending $200 million a day in Yemen. Yet Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are mired in stalemate. Yemen even fired a missile at Saudi Arabia over the weekend. 

The Saudis are uneasy about Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and its ties to Qatar. They just forced the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister (it was a busy weekend in Saudi Arabia), but it’s not clear they have any grander plan for such a volatile country. Qatar may be a tiny, but it has managed to resist Saudi pressure. 

No one expects the Saudis to be best friends with Iran. But the crown prince risks squandering prestige, focus and precious resources on more wars and misadventures.  

Given his youth and ambitions, Mohammed bin Salman probably will be a figure of historic importance for Saudi Arabia. But history can cut many ways. He could be remembered as the petulant ruler who brought the kingdom crashing down on itself. Or the wise one who transformed it.