Far too many journalists and media outlets have fallen prey to the sensationalist “game of thrones” narrative, reporting the recent arrests in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a power grab intended to secure the throne for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Analysts will try their best to figure out the proximity to power of each of the detainees, which include some very high-profile names and one particularly colorful character, exhausting the global coverage. The prevailing narrative outside the Kingdom is that something big has happened, something that some people are already calling a political and economic “earthquake.” Words to describe this week’s events in Saudi Arabia included the phrases “mayhem”, “chaos” and “upheaval”. But in Saudi, the people are noting the new era of equality, a welcomed development and a key to achieving the stated goals of vision 2030 through more transparency and equality in the eyes of the law.
Corruption has always been the Kingdom’s worst kept secret. Indeed, in many quarters it was almost admired. Having Wasta, which means “connections,” was usually a key to securing a job. The culture encouraged people to hire their relatives, to ignore merit, and to favor close relationships.
Nepotism and cronyism are ingrained in the popular consciousness as well.
Rumors about officials embezzling and pocketing state funds and skimming from contracts have long angered the Saudi population. Up until this point, the default expectation among ordinary Saudis was that an official is corrupt. If, by chance, he proved not to be corrupt, the people would go out of their way to praise him for having integrity. And, up until recently, no one expected anything to change.
As such, news of the arrests came as a surprise. Saudi citizens were hit with unprecedented live coverage of arrests of a handful of princes, former ministers, and bureaucrats, some of whom have been around for more than twenty years, and were always perceived to be above the law or “untouchable”. Given the widespread usage of social media, including WhatsApp and Twitter, the Saudi public is very familiar with the personalities involved as well as the ins and outs of the alleged cases of money laundering, bribery, and misuse of power.
While some in the West fret about a “purge” of business elites and political enemies, most Saudis are eagerly following and cheering what they see as a historic step forward for the Kingdom’s justice system.
“It’s a great thing that’s happening. The investigation and arrest of figures who were once deemed untouchable sends a strong message that MbS is serious about ushering a new era of efficiency for our generation and country as a whole,” says one Saudi student studying at American University in Washington, D.C. “The higher ups know what they are doing,” remarked another young Saudi working in the Royal Court in Riyadh. “As Saudis, we leave the dough for the baker. I believe that right will be done where it is due”. “Our government works on its 2030 vision to have an effective government, high transparency and sustainable economy and that needs a anti corruption purge” said Faisal Al Huwail, a former Saudi student at the DC university “Now, I'm extremely optimistic that Saudi government's latest procedures will make foreign and local investors more confident in the Saudi economy , investment environment, and our judicial system.”
In his first appearance on a TV interview with Al Arabiya’s Turki Aldakhil, Mohammed bin Salman said that “the law will be applied to everyone, and every corrupt official will be held accountable.”
Aldakhil pressed him: “These people have influence, and they won’t like the new laws.”
“I will apply the laws to myself, and if they don’t like it, they will clash in the street.”
The Crown Prince gave a second TV interview, this one to Dawood al-Shirian of MBC, where he promised that “no one engaged in corruption will survive justice if provided the evidence, even if it [is] a minister or a prince.”
Breath of fresh air
It was a breath of fresh air for Saudis to hear, but nothing had happened, until now.
The Crown Prince followed through on his pledge. The arrests were immediately preceded by the announcement of a special Anti-Corruption Commission that reports directly to the king and has a wide mandate to investigate corrupt deals, money laundering, bribes, and the registration of fake companies. It has taken no shortcuts, diving deep into high-profile investigations including the expansion of the Holy Mosque, the floods of Jeddah, and the Coronavirus, corruption in the Modon projects, among others.
What the rumors of internal power struggles have failed to see is the newfound alliance that the Crown Prince has forged with technocrats, women, and, most importantly, Saudi youth. The Kingdom, like much of the Middle East, has a tremendous youth bulge, with 70% of its population under the age of thirty-five. Mohammed bin Salman, a young and charismatic leader himself, has been strategic in his focus on the youth; he understands that in order to successfully rule the youth must be taken into consideration at every move.
Out of these three key constituencies the Crown Prince has created a new base of support and, in the process, upended the complex set of old elite and tribal alliances supported by royal patronage and corruption.
The Saudi Foreign Minister indicated the new course Saudi is set to take, telling CNN that “Saudi Arabia announced a zero tolerance policy for corruption and mismanagement, if we want to achieve our objectives for 2030, we must make sure we have a transparent, efficient and accountable government, this is why the supreme commission was established, headed by his royal highness the crown prince, to deal with the issue of corruption, waste, and mismanagement, we have taken very action , we have to do that in order to move forward, if we want to efficient”.
We are waking up to the new Saudi Arabia, a country that is modernizing at a significant pace. The new Saudi Arabia does not differentiate between its citizens and will not tolerate the old habit of sinking the state’s plentiful amount of money into certain individuals’ personal accounts. Ending the long-standing culture of admiration for corrupt people and shifting corruption into the limelight, shaming and questioning those who are corrupt, is a huge leap forward, and is beneficial to the psyche and attitude of Saudis. Leading by example through a top-down approach is also a welcome change.
The symbolism of all of this is clear: this is a new era, and things won’t be the same as they used to be.
Yousef Al Naimi and Michelle Cioffoletti are researchers at the Arabia Foundation