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All the King’s Consultants

The Perils of Advising Authoritarians

MBS talks with King Salman during the GCC Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 2018 Handout / Reuters

“Does a Lebanese kid from Harvard know more about the streets of Riyadh than I do?” a Saudi business developer asked me in 2016, bemoaning the scores of highly paid foreign consultants whispering into the ears of his country’s leaders. The phenomenon isn’t unique to Saudi Arabia, and neither are the complaints. “All their eyes are on our money,” an Emirati adviser said in an interview. “Too many strategies, not enough getting done.”

Experts play valuable and highly visible roles advising leaders in wealthy liberal democracies and international institutions. But far less is known about what they do—and to what effect—for authoritarian regimes and developing countries. That’s a problem, because autocratic leaders from China to Saudi Arabia increasingly rely on experts, especially from top consulting firms, universities, and think tanks in the West. In 2017, the consulting market in the Gulf monarchies topped $2.8 billion, with Saudi Arabia 

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