By Roisin Murray
With a historical legacy as the foremost theocratic state in the Sunni Muslim sphere, political developments in Saudi Arabia that threaten to challenge its conservative, religious identity are significant. The domestic situation of Saudi Arabia is a concern for many foreign governments; states worldwide are reliant on Saudi oil, and Saudi Arabia is vital to the security of the Gulf region. The international community has focused its attention on Saudi Arabia, as Prince bin Salman continues to implement his modernisation agenda under the banner of ‘Vision 2030’. Bin Salman, who previously held the position of defence minister, is the son of King Salman and has been named the successor to the throne. The latest development in bin Salman’s reform agenda has seen him embark upon an anti-corruption crusade directed at upper-level elites, crystallising in the detention of 325 top officials in Ritz-Carlton hotel on corruption charges. Thus, this article will discuss the recent corruption crusade in light of the wider reformist drive. Essentially, it will analyse to what extent this crackdown on fraudulent practice in business is a logical expansion of bin Salman’s blueprint for modernisation, or rather a smokescreen to distract from the pervading, growing autocracy of the kingdom.
These reforms are part of bin Salman’s wider drive for modernisation of the Kingdom, enshrined in his ‘Vision 2030’ blueprint. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia’s hegemony has remained wholly uncontested. Its national identity has been built on its role as ultraconservative Kingdom, greatly influenced by Islamic clericalism and financed by a state -sponsored oil industry. Bin Salman’s push for modernisation and diversification of the Saudi economy comes at a critical time. The financial situation of the Kingdom is precarious, following a decline in oil prices and the rising expense associated with participation in the war in Yemen. Bin Salman aspires to transform the Kingdom into a more expansive economy, driven by private investment and renowned for its ingenuity. However, systemic corruption is an obstacle to bin Salman’s precious roadmap.
Bin Salman’s so-called anti-corruption purges saw approximately 325 figures from Saudi’s elite placed in detention for eighty days under corruption and embezzlement charges. The ensuing investigation saw finances audited and personal bank accounts frozen. Yet, as January came to a close, bin Salman released the majority of those who had been detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, as their accounts faced scrutiny from analysts. A reported $100 billion was recovered by the Saudi government, following the end of a three-month investigation into charges of corruption amongst high-ranking royal families and businessmen. Over three hundred of the detainees managed to secure their freedom following a financial settlement which included an exchange of commercial property, stocks and cash. A full breakdown has not been made public, raising concerns that state business continues to be conducted behind closed doors, with little regulation. Accusations that the crackdown was the result of a nefarious political agenda, seeking to target individuals who were critics of the Prince, are rife. The private nature of the negotiations exposes the hollowness of bin Salman’s reforms. Traditionally, Saudi decision-making has been notably opaque ‘in the form of decrees with a flavour of palace intrigue’. The continuation of such policies when addressing the lack of transparency in business dealings is somewhat ironic. Furthermore, it also emphasises bin Salman’s failure to challenge the lack of accountability of the royal family.
Those advocating change in Saudi Arabia applaud bin Salman’s reforms, which seek to promote accountability for financial malpractice in business ventures. However, his plans for the nation do not come risk-free. There is the likelihood that such practices will hamper potential foreign investment, while investment at home potentially stalls. Bin Salman’s excessive centralisation of the government and the nonchalance with which he requisitions assets does not exactly endear domestic investors.
The crusade to eradicate the corruption plaguing the upper echelons of Saudi Arabia is only one element of bin Salman’s wider template for modernisation. Bin Salman has already announced his intention to lead the Kingdom back to moderate Islam and has sought to curb the excesses of the religious police force. But the reform which has garnered widespread international attention is the lifting of the notorious ban on female drivers, to be enacted in June. Female liberation in Saudi Arabia has been further compounded by women’s increased access to the public sphere, enshrined in new legislation which permits them to attend football games.
Yet, beneath the surface of these progressive developments, Saudi Arabian despotism only continues to strengthen. A recent centralisation of the power structure has afforded bin Salman almost uncontested power, highlighted by the extensive responsibilities bestowed upon him; he now enjoys control of the Defence, Foreign, Finance and Petroleum ministries. Recent restructuring of the governing body means that decision-making has become highly exclusive, a privilege reserved for the elite. Bin Salman has carved a position from where he can pursue his hawkish foreign policy goals, exemplified by Saudi intervention Yemen. Thus, bin Salman’s reforms can be seen in the context of a diversion technique to distract from the growing tyrannical and coercive nature of the Kingdom.
Bin Salman is not only the driving force behind ‘Vision 2030’ but is also the fresh new face of Saudi Arabia’s public relations. Symbolic visits to the NATO headquarters and the White House suggest approval for bin Salman in the Western world, which has largely, and conveniently, ignored bin Salman’s continued centralization of power. Yet, Hammond contends that the tendency of the Western states to endorse Saudi Arabia’s ‘empty discourse of reform, with its essentially limited gains’ is influenced by an ulterior motive; their concern for stability in the Kingdom, given that it provides essential services to governments in the West.
Ultimately, bin Salman’s reformist agenda is a red herring, and merely a pretext for bin Salman to pave his way to a Saudi Arabian autocracy. The anti-corruption purges are evidence of bin Salman’s far-reaching influence and power, and the lack of transparency in the final negotiations have thus far been excused. While it is easy to welcome the progressive social developments, on deeper analysis they seem tainted by a nefarious agenda; these ‘reforms’ are simply symbolic concessions to placate the international community and divert attention from bin Salman’s escalating power drive. The wind of change is blowing, but it is not strong enough to dislodge the authoritarianism of the Saudi royal family.
Roisin Murray is currently undertaking an MA in International Relations at King’s College London. She holds an undergraduate history degree from University College Dublin. Her research interests include diplomacy, counter-terrorism and insurgency, particularly in the context of the Middle East.
 Joseph Nevo, “Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia,” Middle Eastern Studies 34, no.3 (1998): 35,https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00263209808701231?needAccess=true&instName=King%27s+College+London–
 Tim Niblock, Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006): 1.
 Hamid Hussain, “Royal Rumble: Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family,” Defense Journal 21, no.1 (August 2017): 50.
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 Karim, “The Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy’, 82.
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 Andrew Hammond, The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia (London: Pluto Press, 2012): 231.
Hammond, The Islamic Utopia, 231.
Hammond, Andrew. The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia. London: Pluto Press, 2012.
Hussain, Hamid. “Royal Rumble: Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family.” Defense Journal 21, no.1 (August 2017): 50-56, https://search.proquest.com/openview/783c8d01468270b5a07a0f4fb0fafc92/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=616545
Karim, Umer. “The Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy and the Role of Decision-making Processes and Actors.” The International Spectator 52, no.2 (2017): 71-88. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03932729.2017.1308643?needAccess=true&instName=King%27s+College+London
Nevo, Joseph. “Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia.” Middle Eastern Studies 34, no.3 (1998): 34-53. 35, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00263209808701231?needAccess=true&instName=King%27s+College+London–
Niblock, Tim. Saudi Arabia: Power, Legitimacy and Survival. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.
Roisin Murray is currently working as a researcher at a private security consultancy. She holds an MA in International Relations from King’s College London. Her research interests include diplomacy, authoritarian regimes and counter-terrorism.