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Authoritarianism and corruption in Saudi Arabia

Transparency Int'l

With a score of 53, Saudi Arabia improved by four points on the Corruption Perceptions Index since last year. However, its score does not reflect the myriad problems in the country, including a dismal human rights record and severe restrictions on journalists, political activists and other citizens, which is one of the many reasons it’s a “country to watch” on this year’s CPI.

Over the past years, Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars to polish its reputation and suppress criticism from international media. With the help of Western PR agencies, the government is pushing the image of a modern country attractive for foreign investors. At home, however, the regime’s actions paint a very different picture — one of ruthless repression and flagrant disregard of human rights.

Corrupt “anti-corruption” purge

In 2017, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) carried out an ”anti-corruption” purge as part of his reform of the country. This was seen by many as a move to consolidate his position of power to which he rose through plotting and nepotism.

A self-styled (anti-corruption) reformer on the one hand, the Crown Prince lives a luxurious lifestyle that eats up billions of dollars of unclear origin on the other. His recent lavish purchases include a yacht, a French chateau and a da Vinci painting, adding up to over US$1 billion.

Despite government claims of recovering approximately US$106 billion of stolen assets in the crackdown, there was no due process, transparent investigation or fair and free trial for suspects.

Even if it was a sincere attempt to clamp down on corruption, this top-down approach will likely prove to be unsustainable, as it does not draw on the full range of anti-corruption measures, many of which rely on the participation of non-state actors.

Aerial view of Riyadh (Image: swisshippo/iStock)

Crushing dissent

The absence of civil society points toward a much wider problem in Saudi Arabia. Over recent years, the country’s regime has been escalating its clampdown on dissenters, detaining people for peaceful activism or political opposition.

In November 2019, the Kingdom even categorised feminism and homosexuality as crimes. While the government ultimately retracted its announcement , Saudi Arabia’s leading women human rights defenders are still behind bars for their human rights work.

A free media is also practically non-existent in Saudi Arabia, and any form of dissent bears the risk of grave consequences, from corporal punishment to prison or even death sentences.

Corruption in the judiciary

A lack of accountability in the Saudi judiciary enables corruption. With a legal system that follows Sharia law, individual judges determine what constitutes a crime, which comes with increased corruption risks.

Judicial corruption is common, in cases of both land registration and when it comes to politically sensitive decisions. Judges reportedly receive “implicit instructions” and pressure to issue harsh sentences. A special court set up to try cases of terrorism is particularly known for a lack of transparency and severe rulings against human rights defenders.

Opaque state finances

A lack of transparency and oversight in state finances are also major problems. Some experts suggest that countries with rich natural resources that depend on the sale of those resources rather than tax revenue are less likely to act in an accountable way towards citizens.

This seems to apply to Saudi Arabia, where its general auditing bureau is not answerable to any elected body, leaving outsiders and citizens wondering how much of the state budget ends up in the pockets of the ruling family.

This blog is part of a “countries to watch” series from the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

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