Is the Saudi Purge Really About Corruption?

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) dramatically arrested 11 princes and dozens of other wealthy businessmen and high officials under the guise of fighting corruption, a move that has provoked a minor avalanche of speculation among foreign analysts. The arrests have nothing to do with corruption or everything to do with it; they are about consolidating power or a sign of power consolidated; they are the beginning of a new era of transparency and accountability or further evidence of unchecked power at the height of the Saudi government.

Andrew Leber and Christopher Carothers for Foreign Affairs

In explaining MbS’s actions, many analysts have looked to China. David Ignatius of the Washington Post was the first of many to compare the arrests to the long-running anticorruption campaign of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which has brought charges against a host of high officials and other bureaucrats. Sometimes these comparisons are a form of flattery, as when supporters of the crown prince suggest that MbS, like Xi, is serious about pro-business reforms and government efficiency. Writing about the Saudi purges, Ali Shihabi of the Arabia Foundation approvingly cites Xi’s campaign as another example of “a firm break with a venal past.” More commonly, though, analysts have dismissed the anticorruption drives in both countries as nothing more than power grabs, making use of “a common authoritarian tactic for consolidating power,” in the words of AEI’s Clay Fuller.

Taking up the MbS–Xi comparison, we argue three points. First, it is too early (and too easy) to dismiss MbS’s anticorruption efforts—the crown prince isn’t Xi, but Xi’s campaign shows that autocrats can sometimes combine power grabs with substantial reforms. Second, to become more like his Chinese counterpart, MbS will need a strong enough hand to challenge the corrupt status quo and enough state capacity to make reforms stick. Third, the test of the reforms over the coming months will be whether the crackdown continues, MbS announces and enforces clear rules against official conduct, and whether purged elites are quietly released and “un-purged.” These will show whether last week’s purge was really a one-off power grab or the beginning of a serious attempt to take on systemic corruption.

Autocrats are often deeply corrupt, but it would be a mistake to dismiss all authoritarian efforts to clean up government as little more than “political theater.” Most China experts, for instance, believe that Xi’s campaign has at least partially curbed corruption while helping him to consolidate his personal power and expand the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the state and society. Since 2013, the CCP has disciplined well over a million people for corruption; not all of them could possibly have been Xi’s rivals. Indeed, even among the top officials who have been brought up on corruption charges, few were direct threats to Xi or his power. Rather, they were flagrantly corrupt.

Too often, analysts of these anticorruption drives fall into a tautology, assuming that anyone purged for graft by an autocrat must have been an enemy of the autocrat to begin with—otherwise, why would they have been purged? Regarding recent events in Saudi Arabia, for example, writers such as Zach Beauchamp of Vox and Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations have raised the possibility that MbS was warding off a nascent coup from potential rivals or that he was moving to stop one from taking place. That theory might be plausible in the case of Prince Muteb bin Abdullah, the now-former minister of the national guard who was once seen as a potential contender for the Saudi throne. Yet it struggles to explain the arrest of outwardly pro-government technocrats with little firepower at their disposal. For instance, there isn’t a shred of evidence that Adel Fakeih, ex-minister of economy and planning, had challenged or could have ever attempted to challenge MbS. Just last year, he was described by Reuters as “the ruling family’s point man” for the economic reforms favored by the crown prince.

In fact, it is not unheard of for autocrats to purge rivals and then actually succeed in reducing corruption, although many, of course, do not. Chiang Kai-shek, after losing China’s civil war and retreating to Taiwan, launched a successful purge and reform of the notoriously corrupt Nationalist Party. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was admired by many around the world, despite being a dictator, because he cleaned up Singapore and instituted an untouchable bureaucracy. More recently, in authoritarian Rwanda, President Paul Kagame’s strict anticorruption policies have earned him plaudits from Western media and international development organizations. (Xi’s multiyear campaign, meanwhile, has been significant, but it is still ongoing.) It is not unheard of for autocrats to purge rivals and then actually succeed in reducing corruption
Saudi Arabia, critics may protest, is none of those countries, and there are no guarantees that this month’s arrests are anything other than a power grab. But although true popular opinion is hard to gauge in absolutist Saudi Arabia, more than a few Saudis will have been pleased to hear about fat-cat princes being rounded up and publicly shamed. And at a time when years of low oil prices have raised the specter of austerity in the kingdom, the government’s announcement that it had recovered billions of dollars in public funds from the accused, who had ferreted them away through graft and bribery, may come as a welcome sign that at least some of the rich and powerful will be forced to pay their fair share. To celebrate the arrests, a few Saudi Twitter users even shared a clip from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, in which FBI agents tear into the offices of a fraudulent stockbroker to the tune of “Mrs. Robinson,” some subtitling the scene with Arabic terms for crimes such as money-laundering, graft, and nepotism.

If MbS does try to follow in the footsteps of Xi or autocrats who have curbed corruption in the past, there is no obvious authoritarian anticorruption playbook for him to read from. Forthcoming analysis of 27 attempted authoritarian cleanups since 1945 by one of the authors of this article suggests that leaders have succeeded when they had unconstrained authority to challenge the corrupt status quo and could count on strong state capacity to implement and enforce reforms. In China, Xi’s efforts have been much stronger than those of other recent leaders, such as Hu Jintao, in large part because he has much more personal power—power that the successes of the campaign are further enhancing. Xi is no Mao Zedong, but his public image as an effective leader (especially on the issue of corruption) has helped him build a minor cult of personality.

If this analysis is right, then it’s worth noting that MbS seems well on his way to having the personal authority and latitude needed to dislodge entrenched official privileges. We know the recent purge was not undertaken primarily to eliminate potential rivals for his power because he already did the heavy lifting for that last June, when he outmaneuvered his only real competitor, former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. That he carried out the recent purge from a position of strength lends some credence to the idea that MbS is genuinely trying to rein in abuses of power by officials.

Yet even without rivals and assuming that anticorruption efforts are indeed about fighting corruption, a reformist autocrat will also need an organized and capable state to succeed. Xi, for instance, would be helpless without a capable and well-organized CCP, and MbS will likewise run into trouble without help from the Saudi bureaucracy. The crown prince and his allies can, for a time at least, still count on significant financial reserves. Yet they may struggle to bring to heel the byzantine warren of fiefdoms carved out of the Saudi state by decades of internal family rivalries. These divisions strike at the heart of the state capacities most needed to curb corruption, including an ability to effectively distribute resources (or ensure that money goes where it is supposed to go) and regulate social relationships (so that personal ties do not trump official regulations). MbS is far behind Xi here; even strong critics of the CCP would concede it has state capacity that most other authoritarian regimes can only envy.

It would be easy for MbS to drop the issue. The arrests are imposing real costs on the Saudi economy in the short run, as skittish investors bide their time and wealthy Saudis move to send funds to secure destinations abroad—all waiting for the final shoe to drop. Indeed, worries about the impact of anticorruption measures on economic growth blunted many pre-Xi campaigns in China, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s. But if there is no backpedaling on the arrests of elites, the crackdown continues deeper into the state, and MbS backs clear rules against official malfeasance, then we have cause to believe the crown prince is serious about combatting corruption. Only then will we know whether these purges were just a vigorous spring cleaning or a reformer’s opening salvo.