There are countries in which you are accused of an act of corruption and then you are arrested. And then there are countries in which someone decides to arrest you and only then are you called corrupt.
Saudi Arabia belongs to that second category. Last week, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, used the excuse of "corruption" to arrest several dozen people, including close members of his family, and to lock them up in the posh confines of the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.
Nobody took the charges at face value. “Corruption” — theft from the state — is not easily defined in Saudi Arabia, a place where the ruling family is the state, and vice versa.
Instead, those who know the country have argued that these arrests are part of a major political transition, an assault on the country's sclerotic, traditional power structure. The crown prince appears to be "deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system in Saudi Arabia," wrote The Post's David Ignatius. The arrests were preceded by other changes: Talk of social modernization, for example — one of the world's most misogynistic societies will soon allow women to drive — as well as of the diversification of an economy almost entirely dependent on oil.
But if those are the goals, these arrests also represent another setback for U.S. leadership in the era of President Trump, and a major blow to the prestige of a very different model of modernization and political transition. Most European countries were once monarchies like Saudi Arabia, but they handed over power to parliaments. The United States once denied women many rights, but it slowly enfranchised them. That Western model — to expand rights and freedom, to establish the rule of law and independent courts, to pass sovereignty from an aristocracy to a broader group of citizens — was long promoted by Americans as a matter of course. During what is remembered as the “Third Wave” of democratization, from the 1970s to the 1990s, dozens of countries in Latin America, Asia and central Europe sought to emulate this tradition and carry out this kind of reform.
Now that model is in retreat. Instead of following a Western model of modernization and reform, the crown prince has taken the path of China and Russia, where "political transition" means that power is retained by a tiny, very wealthy elite. In Russia in 2003, Vladimir Putin arrested, for "corruption," Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Russia. Khodorkovsky was unluckier than the Saudi princes — he wound up in a Siberian labor camp, not the Ritz-Carlton — but his arrest served the same purpose: It frightened Russia's other rich men into submission, and it established the Kremlin, not the oligarchs, as the ultimate source of power.
In China, Trump's new friend, President Xi Jinping, has used charges of "corruption" in a strikingly similar manner. As in Russia and Saudia Arabia, almost everyone in the nepotistic Chinese ruling class has extraordinary access to money, jobs and even state assets. The decision to call anyone "corrupt" is just as political in Beijing as it is in Riyadh. Since taking power, Xi has, like Putin, used that tool to eliminate political rivals, to scare his colleagues and to establish himself as the unchallengeable ruler. And by using the language of "anti-corruption," he, like Putin, seeks public approval in a society that is well aware that the system is skewed against them.
It's not hard to guess why the Saudi crown prince has chosen to follow the Russian and Chinese road map, or why he has sought to consolidate power instead of sharing it. In part, it is thanks to the failure of the Arab Spring, a disaster that has tragically tainted "Western models" in a part of the world that will know peace only if citizens of different ethnicities can find ways to share power.
But Trump is also part of the story. By his own example — through his disdain for courts and for the media, through his scorn for ethical norms — Trump has cast doubt on the Western model. He may even have encouraged the Saudi prince more directly. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, a living embodiment of American nepotism, visited Riyadh for long talks — officially to promote Mideast peace, but perhaps business and politics came up, too — in the days before the arrest. The image of two princelings, scheming late into the night, makes a textbook illustration of the decline of American prestige and American values, even in a country that is closely allied to the United States.
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