Anti-corruption campaigns are a tried-and-true mechanism for dealing with opposition in authoritarian regimes. Perhaps the most notable example comes from the Assad regime in Syria during the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad used the tactic to clean house and build legitimacy. The purges allowed him to claim to be a champion of the people. More importantly, because corruption was endemic within the regime, everyone was potentially vulnerable. To a large degree the regime was built around corruption. Without oil money to distribute, the regime used government corruption as a form of patronage. Loyal officers and bureaucrats were given positions where they could extract bribes etc… as their reward. Therefore, almost be definition, if someone was in a position of authority, they were guilty of corruption. Assad could arrest anyone he wanted and everyone else was so terrified they made sure to toe the party line. After Hafez died, his son Basher repeated the exercise to ensure he would not be challenged by any of the old guard.
It should not be surprising then that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is launching a similar campaign. The Saudi political system is somewhat different from Syria’s but the logic of the anti-corruption game remains the same. Almost everyone is vulnerable, and those that escape are usually so relieved they don’t complain.
The initial public reaction has been positive, at least if the twitterverse can be trusted. However, there are a few things the King and Crown Prince should keep in mind. First, the regime is already going through a major transformation. The reforms instituted by the Crown Prince and his Father, King Salman, challenge the complex ruling formula that has held Saudi Arabia together since before the oil boom of the 1970s. As part of the Vision 2030 project, King Salmon and son are cutting back on government spending, privatizing parts of the national oil company, ARAMCO, and adopting an assertive and expensive new foreign policy posture in the region. Even gender roles are being challenged, with women being given the right to drive. The anti-corruption campaign is likely intended to preempt opposition to these changes. However, with so much happening the regime may be too fragile to withstand a major purge.
Second, the regime’s main strength has always been the cohesion of the royal family. Even before the oil boom, the main pillar of the regime was the al Saud itself. The logic was always simple: stay together or hang separately. Backing this logic up were a complex set of rules concerning succession and norms for governing within the family that smoothed out the rough edges and kept disputes to a minimum. However, by promoting the Crown Prince so quickly, the King has already violated most of these rules and norms. Moreover, Saudi specialist Joseph Kechichian suggests the intent is to “modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too”. If that is true, they may undermine the logic of maintaining cohesion may also be undermined. If the other members of the al Saud figure they are going to hang anyway, there may not be much incentive for them to stick together.