Is Saudi Arabia Immune to Anti-Corruption Movements?

April 18th, 2012

The Mall of Arabia / flickr ActiveSteve

In many ways, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contains one of the most unique styles of government and political culture in the world. The central institution of the government is the monarchy—headed by King Abdullah. The Holy Qur’an is the constitution of the country and the nation is governed on the basis of Islamic law or Shari’a. The reaches of the king’s power are essentially limited only by Saudi tradition, Shari’a, and consensus among the royal family and religious leaders.

Saudi Arabia holds a tight grip on the nation’s government, politics, and culture in large part because the country has so much oil wealth–Saudi Arabia holds nearly 21.5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. The Kingdom’s ability to maintain control over this political structure depends on its ability to use oil to increase well-being in the nation and maintain a position as the leading player in the region’s power politics.

When the rest of the region was rocked by anti-corruption demonstrations and regime change during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, with the exception of some demonstrations by a Shia minority in the east, remained relatively calm. These political demonstrations against corruption have little opportunity or likelihood of success for two major reasons. First because the monarchy has deep pockets of military power and isn’t afraid to use it. Second because the general population is generally content. Saudi citizens may be interested in reform, but not fundamental change. In fact, according to a nationwide survey in 2008, 80 percent of Saudis supported a free press, but a nearly equal majority (79 percent) also supported an absolute monarchy. King Abduallah enjoyed a 95 percent favorable rating.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia is not immune to reform movements, but these are moderate and seek specific changes around the edges, not democracy, widespread reform of the current political system, or revolt against the monarchy. Even the Saudi reform movement, which was born among intellectuals and non-Islamists in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, did not question the fundamental legitimacy of the monarchy, despite its clear political and philosophical differences with the ruling class. After protests in the Arab Spring overthrew leaders in Ben Ali and Mubarak, King Abdullah promised a series of reforms—apparently in an appeasement of citizens either inspired or who might be inspired by the regional unrest. These included the promise to fight graft with the creation of a new body anti-corruption body, answerable directly to him.

But there are other ways to voice opposition that do not involve physical demonstrations. Verbal protests have mainly been held at bay because Saudi Arabia keeps a tight grip on the press; over the past seventeen years the country has not only used its deep pockets to influence and literally own the media, but also the intellectual and academic thinkers which inform those sources. This allows the country to tightly control the national mood and public perceptions.

But as internet penetration in the Kingdom increases this dynamic has and will change. Social media outlets like YouTube and Twitter have already begun to drive a debate on corruption and government inefficiency, topics that were previously off-limits. Using satire, bloggers and tweeters skewer government officials, garnering hundreds of thousands of clicks and followers from within the country.

This movement is unlikely to bring about corruption reform in Saudi Arabia, but only in part because of a possible or imminent government crackdown. In Saudi Arabia, as with other oil rich states, economic corruption—including both petty and large scale—goes hand in hand with political corruption, which involves “deals” that reward political allies diverts public resources away from productive activities.

Political corruption is reformed with transparency, strong enforcement mechanisms, and real accountability for government officials. Given that these reforms could disrupt the monarchy’s grip on power, they are unlikely to materialize. Saudi Arabia has consistently shown a willingness to reform only in ways that cement, not compromises, its grip on power. For example, when the King announced reforms in May of last year, he also promised 60,000 new jobs in the security forces—both to employ huge numbers of jobless young men and, implicitly, to bolster his ability to quell protests. Anti-graft agencies established with the promise to fight corruption in the public sector have remained inept and continue to allow the royal family and high-ranking officials to act with impunity.

Unfortunately, in the absence of regime change or serious reform—neither of which have much hope in the Kingdom—social media movements are unlikely to enjoy political or economic success.

Image: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by ActiveSteve

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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