The anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia is doomed to fail

Patrick Cockburn

About eight or nine years ago, I had an Afghan friend who previously worked for a large US aid agency funding projects in the Afghan provinces. He had been hired to monitor their progress once work had got underway, but he did not hold the job very long for reasons that he explained to me.

The problem for the Americans at the local agency headquarters in Kabul was that the risk of ambush by the Taliban was deemed too high for them personally to visit the projects that they were funding. Instead, they followed the construction from one step removed, by insisting that the Afghan company involved should transmit back to Kabul, at set intervals, detailed pictures of its activities, to show that they were fulfilling their contract to the letter.

Almost as an afterthought, the aid agency thought it might be useful to send along an Afghan in their employ to check that all was well. His first mission was to go to Kandahar province, where some plant – I seem to remember it was a vegetable packing facility – was believed to be rising somewhere in the dangerous hinterland. He went there, but, despite earnest inquiries, was unable to locate the project.

Back in Kandahar city, he asked around about the mystery of the missing vegetable plant, but found that his questions were answered evasively by those he contacted. Finally, he met somebody who, under a pledge of secrecy about the source of the information, explained to him what was happening. Businessmen in Kandahar receiving funds from the aid agency and knowing its reliance on photographs to monitor works in progress, had found it safer and more profitable to fake the whole process.

They engaged a small local company with experience of making TV advertisements and documentaries to rig up what was, in effect, a film studio – in which workers played by extras would be shown busily engaged in whatever activity the agency was paying for. In the case of the vegetable-packing facility, this must have been simple enough to fake by buying cabbages and cauliflowers in the market to be placed in boxes inside some shed by labourers hired by the day.

My friend returned to Kabul and hinted to his employers that this particular project in Kandahar was not doing as well as they imagined. He thought that it would be unhealthy for himself to go into detail, but he did not, at this stage, resign from his well-paying job. This only happened a few months later, when he was sent to Jalalabad to check on a chicken farm supposedly nearing completion outside the city.

Once again, he could not find the project in question and, when he met those in charge, put it to them that it did not exist. They admitted that this was indeed so, but – according to his report – they added menacingly that he should keep in mind that “it was a long road back to Kabul from Kandahar”. In other words, they would kill him if he exposed their scam: a threat that convinced him his long-term chances of survival were low unless he rapidly resigned and found new employment.

I was thinking of the story of the Kandahar packing plant and the Jalalabad chicken farm, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia last weekend. There may be a big difference in the amount of money to be made out of looting the Saudi state compared to US aid agencies in Afghanistan, but the psychology and processes at work have similarities.

In both cases, those making a lot of money out of corruption will put more effort into going on doing just that, than those who say they are determined to stop them. If a few wealthy individuals are scapegoated, then others will jostle to take their place.

It is important to take on board, when considering the case of Saudi Arabia, that many oil- or resource-rich states – be they monarchies or republics – have launched their own anti-corruption drives down the years. All have failed, and for roughly the same reasons.

Iraq, so different from Saudi Arabia in terms of history, religion and politics, is likewise entirely dependent on oil revenues. Its next biggest export used to be dates, though today even these are often imported from China. Corruption is chronic, particularly in giant infrastructure projects. Four years ago, I was in Baghdad early in the year, when there was heavier than usual rainfall, which led to a large part of the eastern side of the city disappearing under a foot of grey water mixed with sewage. This was despite $7bn (£5.3bn) supposedly spent on new sewers and drainage systems, but which, in the event, turned out not to function – or even to exist.

The problem in resource-rich states is that corruption is not marginal to political power, but central to acquiring it and keeping it. Corruption at the top is a form of patronage manipulated by those in charge, to create and reward a network of self-interested loyalists. It is the ruling family and its friends and allies who cherrypick what is profitable: this is as true of Saudi Arabia as it was true of Libya under Gaddafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and his successors, or Iraqi Kurdistan that was supposedly different from the rest of the country.

Corruption is a nebulous concept when it comes to states with arbitrary rulers, who can decide – unrestrained by law or democratic process – what is legal and what is illegal. What typifies the politics of oil states is that everybody is trying to plug into the oil revenues in order to get their share of the cake.

This is true at the top, but the same is the case of the rest of the population, or at least a large and favoured section of it. The Iraqi government pays $4bn a month to about seven million state employees and pensioners. These may or may not do productive work, but it would be politically risky to fire them because they are the base support of the regime in power.

Anti-corruption drives don’t work, because if they are at all serious, they soon begin to cut into the very roots of political power by touching the “untouchables”. At this point principled anti-corruption campaigners will find themselves in serious trouble and may have to flee the country, while the less-principled ones will become a feared weapon to be used against anybody whom the government wants to target.

A further consequence of the traditional anti-corruption drive is that it can paralyse government activities in general. This is because all officials, corrupt and incorrupt alike, know that they are vulnerable to investigation. “The safest course for them is to take no decision and sign no document which might be used or misused against them,” a frustrated American businessman told me in Baghdad some years ago. He added that it was only those so politically powerful that they did not have to fear legal sanctions who would take decisions – and such people were often the most corrupt of all.

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