Is Saudi’s Bin Salman tackling corruption or making money?
Tackling corruption is an Islamic duty akin to combating terrorism, senior Saudi clerics have said in response to the recent purge on princes, officials and businessmen which has seen dozens arrested over the weekend.
As part of its “religious duty”, the newly established anti-corruption commission, set up at the behest of King Salman, hit the ground running and has already led to the arrest of prominent businessmen including Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal who is said to be worth $16.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Critics have called the cull further proof that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is eradicating any opposition, ensuring his succession and gaining overall control of the country. The move comes less than five months after he was named the new crown prince when his cousin, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, was ousted and placed under house arrest.
Bin Salman, “the wild bear” as he is referred to online, has become a force to be reckoned with since taking power and has continued the monarchy’s campaign to silence dissent, even from within its ranks. Most recently, his cousin Prince Abdulaziz Bin Fahd was placed under house arrest after becoming an outspoken critic of the government’s foreign policy, in particular with regards its relations with the UAE and the Palestine-Israel conflict.
However there is more to the arrests than meets the eye. Saudi Arabia has long been a Kingdom which allows no criticism of its policies, anyone wishing to prosper has had to toe the line in order not to risk disappearing. Though Al-Waleed has maintained an high profile internationally and has made comments regarding women’s rights in the Kingdom, his remarks have always been seen as constructive, polite and within the remit which allows the Kingdom to display that it allows freedom of speech, no matter how delusional this idea is.
The only thing those arrested have in common is their wealth. The arrest campaign began with lesser known businessmen weeks ago, billionaires who do not have an international profile. Worth $8.1 billion, Maan Al-Sanea was arrested from his home on 18 October on charges of “evading justice and owing large sums of money to creditors”. He had made his fortune after founding the Saad Group, a conglomerate with operations in construction and engineering, real estate development, financial services and investments.
This weekend alone, 11 princes, four officials and tens of former officials were arrested in the Kingdom, a total of 49 people; the net worth of whom is unimaginable. Ironically they are being held in the Ritz Calton Hotel in Riyadh, a “prison” worthy of their stature.
Bin Salman’s attempts to modernise the Kingdom, reduce its reliance on petrodollars, introduce “moderate Islam” and even setup a tourism hotspot in the conservative region, have been met with scepticism, but mostly they have been met with heavy costs, which a country reeling from the near collapse of oil prices is unable to bear.
The arrests have, however, already helped improve petrol prices. Since they were announced, costs have risen to a two-year high; up 0.8 cent to $62.55 a barrel today. However other indicators show that the arrests have brought uncertainty to the market, and shaken investors.
Bin Salman’s ambitious plans are part of what he has labelled Vision 2030, the timeline during which the Kingdom will have diversified its economy away from petrol and developed its public sector services.
Modern Saudi Arabia has relied on petrol since it was first discovered in 1938. Black gold has made the country, and its rulers, one of the richest in the world, but that all crumbled as petrol prices dropped.
Years of squandering public funds for personal use, using oil funds to “bribe” citizens not to revolt – the government regularly handed out millions of dollars to “help” Saudis cover their costs, never was this greater than during times of possible unrest and during the “Arab Spring” – and a lack of investment in the country’s infrastructure have left the Kingdom unable to make ends meet.
The Makkah–Madina railway line, which is expected to transport more than 6.2 billion passengers within 12 years, is costing 37.5 billion riyals ($10 billion). Due to begin operations next year, the system has been marred with delays.
In July Saudi announced the launch of another ambitious project, a tourism plan along its Red Sea coast which incorporates 50 islands and covers an area larger than Belgium. Work is due to begin in late 2019, with budgets running in to the tens of billions. The project will create 35,000 jobs “once it’s up and running” and contribute 15 billion riyals ($4 billion) to Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product, according to an official statement.
But it is the start-up costs which the government needs now, and if it has been unable to coerce its billionaires to fund its projects, perhaps now it can only access the funds by seizing them, declaring them government property and adding them to its coffers.
Notorious Saudi whistleblower Mujtahidd has warned: “Bin Salman expects to raise 2-3 trillion riyals [$500-$800 billion] from his current arrest campaigns, he will ‘donate’ half a trillion [$100 billion] to the budget and pocket the rest for himself.”