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 accounting for almost half of that amount, according to Source Global Research. Experts and the institutions they work for have sometimes appeared unprepared to handle the potential pitfalls of operating in authoritarian contexts. In recent months, experts who assist regimes associated with human rights violations, corruption, and other wrongdoing—and often charge hefty fees—have provoked growing public criticism, both in the United States, where many are based, and in the countries where they operate.

Consider McKinsey, a global leader in management consulting. The firm, among others in the sector, has come under scrutiny for its work with governments and government-owned enterprises of questionable reputation. Last October, the firm released a statement saying it was “horrified” that a report it had produced on social media usage in Saudi Arabia may have been used by the regime in Riyadh to target political dissidents. A few months earlier, in South Africa, the firm had become embroiled in a major political corruption scandal, in the wake of which it admitted to overcharging the state-owned power company Eskom and failing to properly vet one of

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