Reports from Saudi Arabia say Prince Miteb – one of the royals held as involuntary guests at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh – has agreed to hand over $1 billion to the authorities after admitting to corruption charges.
An unknown number of princes, ex-ministers and businessmen are detained at the hotel in what Crown Prince Mohmmed bin Salman has characterised as an anti-corruption drive.
For the crown prince there are two obvious benefits in this. One is that it's likely to earn him some short-term popularity among the Saudi public. Corruption is a constant bugbear at all levels of society, so it's satisfying to see prominent figures getting their comeuppance even if the targets have been chosen rather selectively.
The other benefit for the crown prince – and perhaps the main one – is that it's a way of eleminating potential threats to the prince's power. Miteb, for example, is a son of the late King Abdullah and a former head of the National Guard.
In a country where there has traditionally been little distinction between state wealth and royal wealth, corruption charges can be used to discredit almost anyone who has fallen out of favour, and in the eyes of the public they are likely to be a lot more plausible than vague accusations of "plotting" or "treason".
The downside, however, is the lack of due process. The crown prince's tactics are reminiscent of the famous English outlaw, Robin Hood whose thieving was in a good cause: he stole from the rich to give to the poor.
Holding people hostage in luxurious conditions and inviting them to hand over large sums of money in exchange for dropping criminal charges might be considered a form of plea-bargaining but it's also a form of extortion. There's also no guarantee that those who do pay up won't be invited for another prolonged stay in the Ritz-Carlton at some point in the future.
This could cause serious damage to the kingdom's efforts to attract foreign investment – especially the $500 billion Neom project announced to great fanfare only last month. The first thing investors will want to be sure about is that their money is not at risk of being seized or compulsorily "donated" to the state coffers.
The current anti-corruption campaign (such as it is) is also limited in scope. It's specifically aimed at those who are deemed to have ripped off the government and, almost by definition, that means it's targeting prominent figures. One of the accusations reportedly levelled against Prince Miteb, for example, is that he awarded government contracts to himself.
Last week, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Crown Prince Mohammed explained that Saudi business people who paid bribes to get services done by bureaucrats are not being prosecuted (and presumably not the bureaucrats who received the bribes either). So far, there is nothing to suggest he will extend the anti-corruption drive once its political purpose has been achieved.
A recent report from Transparency International implies that corruption in Saudi Arabia is likely to continue thriving unless there are radical changes in the way the kingdom is run. Based on a study of work done by anti-corruption agencies (ACAs) in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it produced a series of recommendations – almost none of which Saudi Arabia would be unable to fulfil under present conditions:
- The independence of ACAs should be ensured, in terms of the selection and appointment of the ACAs’ leadership and staff.
- The law must grant ACAs extensive powers to investigate, arrest and prosecute.
- ACAs must be allowed full freedom to discharge their legal mandate impartially, without interference from any quarters.
- There must be an independent oversight mechanism to monitor ACAs functions and practices: for example, a parliamentary oversight committee and/or a committee comprising a cross-section of professional groups and civil society.
- ACAs must demonstrate their ability and willingness to investigate and prosecute those who are involved in grand corruption (the “big fish”), and to impose appropriate sanctions.
- ACAs must lead by example and ensure that its officials and staff practice proactive disclosure of assets, undertake public reporting of their activities and guarantee public access to information.
- ACAs must engage with citizens to educate them, through community relations programmes, on the negative consequences of corruption, and to mobilise their support for their anti-corruption activities.
- ACAs should introduce and implement user-friendly reporting systems to enable citizens to take effective action against corruption.
- ACAs must undertake staff capacity building initiatives. Development partners must support the development of ACAs’ staff capacity.
- The system of handling corruption complaints, investigation and case management should be digitalised.