Thursday, 17th October 2019

Anti-graft drive offers Saudi crown prince respite from foreign critics

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s reputation may still suffer on (parts of) the international stage as a result of the destructive Yemen war, a fruitless boycott of Qatar and the lingering horror of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but the Saudi heir apparent’s position appears secure at home, despite occasional murmurings of disquiet within the family over his absolutist rule. An important element of his sustained appeal among some sections of the Saudi population – particularly the kingdom’s numerous youth – is his anti-corruption campaign. Details of the crackdown ordered by MBS, and its money-raising intent, may give cause for concern; but GSN’s soundings at grassroots level suggest that a shakedown of billionaire princes and oligarchs has won warm approval on the street.

The anti-graft initiatives play well in a country where many locals struggle to find meaningful employment, while the ruling family is seen to soak up the oil riches. The campaign’s initial stages focused on the higher echelons of Saudi society, most infamously through the detention in November 2017 of hundreds of business leaders, senior government officials and some Al-Saud family members at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh (GSN 1,048/1). There are good reasons to suppose the shock-and-awe approach adopted by MBS and his lieutenants was as much to bolster the faction’s political power as anything else – and perhaps to boost their personal fortunes too. A veil of secrecy remains over how much money and assets were extracted from the captives and where it went; reports earlier in the year suggested as much as SR400bn ($107bn) had been handed over, but cases were still in progress against some individuals. Some of these people – and potentially many others – may be asked to ‘contribute’ once again, if recent stories about wealthy families being tapped up to support the Saudi Aramco share sale are accurate.

Over this year there has been a notable shift in approach. In late January, the Royal Court issued a statement announcing the initial phase of the anti-corruption drive had ended, with its objectives apparently achieved after 381 individuals had been summoned (some just for questioning); settlements had been reached with 87 of them and further investigations were continuing against at least eight others (GSN 1,074/1). A few days later, on 4 February, the government announced the establishment of a new financial reporting office, which would be part of the General Auditing Bureau. A further reorganisation was announced on 30 August, when Mazen Al-Khamous was appointed to the Saudi Anti-Corruption Commission (Nazaha, meaning Integrity). Al-Khamous took over from Khaled Al-Muhaisen, who had been in post since 2015.

Nazaha has had a somewhat troubled history since it was created under King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz in 2011. Its initial cohort of senior executives were largely drawn from academia; they were keen on collecting data on corruption and unsuccessfully trying to manipulate Saudi Arabia’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (it is currently ranked at 58 out of 180 countries). However, they were less concerned with gathering the necessary evidence with which to launch prosecutions against corrupt individuals, notwithstanding the executive authority that came as a consequence of having a direct reporting line and access to the king. It was clear that Nazaha had not played a leading role in orchestrating the Ritz-Carlton arrests; indeed at the time it was announced that a new prosecutorial and investigative Supreme Commission would be established to tackle corruption more effectively (GSN 1,048/3).

Since then there have been some tentative signs of progress. In 2018, the number of whistle-blower reports received by Nazaha rose to 15,591, up from 10,402 cases the previous year, according to local daily Arab News. However, this still remains well below the 80 cases a day that were reported to Nazaha in 2014. Just 7.8% of the cases reported in 2018 were passed on to the police for further investigation. And what happens to cases after that often remains a mystery: whether from the Ritz-Carlton arrests or from the files submitted by Nazaha, successful prosecutions of corruption offences are rarely reported. That needs to change if the authorities are serious about tackling graft, and if successful prosecutions are to have a deterrent effect and truly change attitudes. Devoid of the oxygen of transparency, a common view prevails in Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere across the region, that most corruption cases are either politically-motivated or initiated by those who seek to profit from such prosecutions.

Al-Khamous, whose lack of a previous public profile suggests he has been drawn from a Ministry of Interior background, has said in press interviews that he has been tasked by MBS to focus Nazaha on corruption in the civil service’s lower to middling ranks. This is important, not least because it may be easier to publicly expose the failings of more junior officials, as opposed to those entwined with the upper echelons. Even after the Ritz-Carlton affair, senior Saudis are still afforded some more benefits than their lowlier fellow citizens can aspire to.

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