Is the Saudi Purge Really About Corruption?

Lessons From China

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, October 2017. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Earlier this month, 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.

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

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