The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is acting like Putin

Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in 2015. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and author.

Saturday night’s high-profile arrests in Saudi Arabia have sent shock waves through the global political Richter scale. The arrests, including that of such well-known figures as my former boss Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, came within hours of changes in the leadership of a number of important ministries, as well as to the leadership and structure of the much-respected Saudi national guard.

Saudi royals view themselves as The Party, sharing power and ruling by consent, in an arrangement that is largely opaque. What is absolutely clear after Saturday’s “Night of the Long Knives” is that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is upending this arrangement and centralizing all power within his position as crown prince.

This purge comes on the heels of complete intolerance for even mild criticism of Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, resulting in at least 70 arrests that have, unfortunately, garnered far less attention. Many of us living outside Saudi Arabia will not return home for fear of the same fate. Our families have been targeted instead.

All of this leaves me in a difficult quandary. I champion a real campaign to tackle the rampant corruption that is draining Saudi resources, both financial and human. Our unemployment rate would drop rather significantly if the billions we squandered on kickbacks and lavish personal enrichment schemes dressed up as public-works projects were spent instead on the development of small to medium enterprises, vocational training and 21st-century education reforms.

Corruption in Saudi Arabia is quite different from  corruption in most other countries, as it is not limited to a “bribe” in return for a contract, or expensive gift for the family member of a government official or prince, or use of a private jet that is charged to the government so a family can go on vacation.

Instead, in Saudi Arabia, senior officials and princes become billionaires as contracts are either enormously inflated or, at worst, a complete mirage. In 2004, Lawrence Wright wrote in the New Yorker about “The Kingdom of Silence” where a massive sewer project in Jeddah was really a series of manhole covers across the city with no actual pipes underneath. I, as the editor of a major paper at the time, can say that we all knew, and we never reported on it.

Another example is building an airport in the wrong location simply to benefit the princes who own the land. They received the land for free from the government and then got extravagant compensation for the property.
Last year, during an interview with Bloomberg, Mohammed bin Salman revealed that “there was roughly between 80 to 100 billion dollars of inefficient spending every year, about a quarter of the entire Saudi budget” during the oil boom from 2010 to 2014.

The Post's David Ignatius explains why Saudi Arabia is at a historic tipping point --- and why that matters for America. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“Inefficient spending” is a far too gentle description for corruption in Saudi Arabia. So yes, I, as a Saudi citizen, am eager to see this scourge end.

I have always wondered why the royals monopolized ownership of land in Saudi Arabia to such an extreme that fewer than 40 percent of Saudis are able to own their home. (In the United States, the rate is above 60 percent.) We are no longer a wealthy country, largely due to gross mismanagement of our rather formidable petro-wealth. Our oil reserves are a finite resource, and we have squandered too much for too long. The royals remind me of Aesop’s tale about the greedy couple who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.

So is the 32-year-old crown prince more like Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev or Vladimir Putin in this effort? Is he on a path to truly reform the entire system? Or is he simply seizing upon well-known figures to further centralize power in his own hands?

As of now, I would say Mohammed bin Salman is acting like Putin. He is imposing very selective justice. The crackdown on even the most constructive criticism — the demand for complete loyalty with a significant “or else” — remains a serious challenge to the crown prince’s desire to be seen as a modern, enlightened leader.

Mohammed bin Salman rather famously bought a $500 million yacht in 2015. Rumors rippled across the kingdom of other extravagances. The buck stops at the leader’s door. He is not above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.

So while I applaud the public campaign to end corruption, I call on the Saudi media to assume a proactive role in encouraging impartial and transparent investigations as these corruption cases unfold. We Saudis deserve more than the spectacle of royals and officials interred at the Ritz Carlton. We also should have the right to speak about these important and impactful changes — and the many more needed to achieve the crown prince’s vision for our country.

We are a kingdom of silence no longer.