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‘A Climate Of Fear’: How Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Corruption Crackdown Backfired
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz (Photo KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

‘A Climate Of Fear’: How Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Corruption Crackdown Backfired

Kingdom announces end to sweeping campaign that saw it lose untold foreign investment, analysts say

Saudi Arabia’s sweeping anti-corruption crackdown may have ended but it has left an indelible mark on the kingdom’s image and economic outlook, analysts contend.

Officials in the Gulf kingdom concluded a nearly 15-month long probe in which more than 200 princes and business moguls were detained and over $100 billion in assets seized. Saudi authorities said a total of 381 people, including witnesses, had testified during the campaign and that settlements were reached with 87 individuals who confessed to charges. At least 56 other cases have not yet been settled.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, ordered the clampdown in November 2017. Many members of the country’s political and economic elite were held and questioned at Riyadh’s upscale Ritz-Carlton Hotel, whereas others were jailed and some reportedly tortured, a claim Saudi authorities deny.

While real estate, cash and other assets were forfeited, the overall results of the purge remain unclear due to a lack of government transparency, according to Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli National Security Council adviser and currently a Senior Researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

“The Saudis say it’s over and that they succeeded in getting over $100 billion but I really doubt it,” he told The Media Line, adding that the initiative was meant to enable MBS to consolidate power. “The timing of the ending of this campaign is related to mounting pressure from the international [arena] and U.S. Congress after the murder of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi.”

Last October, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, sparking worldwide furor and criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record.

“The biggest issue for the kingdom, however, is perhaps the fear of outside investors not coming to the country,” Dr. Guzansky noted. “I think this episode really frightened investors.”

Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly interested in boosting foreign investment in order to strengthen and diversify its oil-based economy. But figures released by the United Nations show that foreign direct investment in the kingdom plunged to a 14-year low of $1.4 billion in 2017, down from $7.5 billion in 2016.

“I am not sure what precisely the aims were: Getting some money? Asserting power? On balance, the impact was negative as it created elevated risk of expropriation for private investors and spurred capital flight,” David Butter, a political and economic analyst at the London-based Chatham House organization, told The Media Line.

“It also prompted Saudi families with some wealth to seek residence rights and even nationality abroad—for example in Cyprus, Malta and Turkey.”

Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed the sentiment and reiterated the difficultly of assessing whether the campaign was successful.

“We don’t know exactly what the aim was in the fall of 2017. It was always as much about centralizing authority by the crown prince as it might have been about changing established business practice, especially in government contracting,” she told The Media Line.

“The anti-corruption committee’s work is over as abruptly as it started, and we still have little information about the 87 settlements achieved after confession, and due process that those individuals may or may not have received while detained.”

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