As much as we try to paint things black and white in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, nothing is ever that simple.
Over the past week, the Anti-Corruption Committee in Saudi Arabia, driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, effected a number of detentions of high-profile and wealthy Saudis on suspicion of various forms of corruption. Experts have argued whether the anti-corruption arrests are meant to be taken at face value or instead interpreted as a move towards political power consolidation. While it seems unlikely to be a power play since, to be frank, Salman already held it, a more interesting argument can be made if one removes politics from the equation entirely: the Crown Prince is doing everything in his power to make sure his people remain optimistic about what the future holds.
Instead of focusing on the geopolitical web in which Saudi Arabia is intertwined, a domestic snapshot of Saudi Arabia is one that reminds us that the country is on the verge of a cliff. It is easy to forget that the Kingdom known for its opulence is still a commodity exporter, dependent on the sale, and price, of oil. With nearly 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, an unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 over 30 percent, low and stagnant oil prices, a substantial budget deficit and depleting foreign exchange reserves, Saudi society is primed for unrest. Enter Salman – a young Crown Prince to whom the people can relate. He seems to get it. Salman did not cause the problems Saudi Arabia is set to face in the near future. He inherited them. But he is aggressively trying to remedy them.
At the Future Investment Initiative Forum held last month in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a public promise to his Kingdom and to the rest of the world: “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today.” As much as Salman was addressing the thousands of foreign investors in the auditorium, he was also making a declaration to his people that things ‘as is’ need to change, and promising that he will make it happen.
The series of arrests over the past week was just one example of the bold moves Salman is willing to take to ensure his people have a fighting chance. Separate from the ethical basis for eliminating corruption, this was a message to his people that he hears them — that he’s on the case and to have hope. It is no secret that corruption and nepotism have been intrinsic to Saudi society. Yet this breeds a feeling that there is no equality of opportunity and no potential for future success because of the way things are done. So this was a message to Saudi youth, in particular, that they are breaking the trends of the past, and that the old ways of doing business will not be tolerated. Going forward, no one is above the law. And reactions from Saudis on the ground was accordingly positive.
This can only be accomplished with initiatives that are already set out as part of Vision2030. As ambitious as the plan is, it is a good plan with the potential to truly revolutionize the Kingdom. And again, the arrests last week showcase that Salman is not afraid to shock the system if necessary to get things moving. The Kingdom is in the middle of a very important transformation, and building trust is tantamount to its continued success. Salman is asking his people to trust him, and telling the rest of world that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open for business – legitimately.
The Anti-Corruption Committee, and its mandate, addresses very specific concerns from potential foreign investors. The Committee has for years been gathering evidence against those detained, and Salman’s recent appointment to its Head finally gave it the credibility needed to make a move. Ultimately, the goal is for an increase in transparency and accountability in business that will foster an environment that the international community can comfortably invest in. Estimates are that the Kingdom needs to create 3 million new jobs by 2020 alone, and this can only be accomplished with a burgeoning private sector.
Investors and Saudis alike can now rest assured that all opportunities are equal and there will be no favoritism.
Attention and scrutiny into any major changes coming out of Saudi Arabia is to be expected. Yet it would be inappropriate to judge on the guilt of those accused, as that is not for us to determine. Instead, we must have faith that the judicial authority in Saudi Arabia – one that is fully independent from royal influence – will fairly and adequately evaluate the facts as they stand. Already we have seen evidence of some detained being released, which reinforces this.
Only time will tell if this transformation will take root, but what is clear is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants his people, and all those watching, to know that he’s in this fight for better or worse.
Ken Blackwell is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.