FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why the Anti-Corruption Drive in Saudi Arabia is Doomed to Fail

by

Photo by Muhammad Ghouri | CC BY 2.0

About eight or nine years ago, I had an Afghan friend who previously worked for a large US aid agency funding projects in the Afghan provinces. He had been hired to monitor their progress once work had got underway, but he did not hold the job very long for reasons that he explained to me.

The problem for the Americans at the local agency headquarters in Kabul was that the risk of ambush by the Taliban was deemed too high for them personally to visit the projects that they were funding. Instead, they followed the construction from one step removed, by insisting that the Afghan company involved should transmit back to Kabul, at set intervals, detailed pictures of its activities, to show that they were fulfilling their contract to the letter.

Almost as an afterthought, the aid agency thought it might be useful to send along an Afghan in their employ to check that all was well. His first mission was to go to Kandahar province, where some plant – I seem to remember it was a vegetable packing facility – was believed to be rising somewhere in the dangerous hinterland. He went there, but, despite earnest inquiries, was unable to locate the project.

Back in Kandahar city, he asked around about the mystery of the missing vegetable plant, but found that his questions were answered evasively by those he contacted. Finally, he met somebody who, under a pledge of secrecy about the source of the information, explained to him what was happening. Businessmen in Kandahar receiving funds from the aid agency and knowing its reliance on photographs to monitor works in progress, had found it safer and more profitable to fake the whole process.

They engaged a small local company with experience of making TV advertisements and documentaries to rig up what was, in effect, a film studio – in which workers played by extras would be shown busily engaged in whatever activity the agency was paying for. In the case of the vegetable-packing facility, this must have been simple enough to fake by buying cabbages and cauliflowers in the market to be placed in boxes inside some shed by labourers hired by the day.

My friend returned to Kabul and hinted to his employers that this particular project in Kandahar was not doing as well as they imagined. He thought that it would be unhealthy for himself to go into detail, but he did not, at this stage, resign from his well-paying job. This only happened a few months later, when he was sent to Jalalabad to check on a chicken farm supposedly nearing completion outside the city.

Once again, he could not find the project in question and, when he met those in charge, put it to them that it did not exist. They admitted that this was indeed so, but – according to his report – they added menacingly that he should keep in mind that “it was a long road back to Kabul from Kandahar”. In other words, they would kill him if he exposed their scam: a threat that convinced him his long-term chances of survival were low unless he rapidly resigned and found new employment.

I was thinking of the story of the Kandahar packing plant and the Jalalabad chicken farm, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia last weekend. There may be a big difference in the amount of money to be made out of looting the Saudi state compared to US aid agencies in Afghanistan, but the psychology and processes at work have similarities.

In both cases, those making a lot of money out of corruption will put more effort into going on doing just that, than those who say they are determined to stop them. If a few wealthy individuals are scapegoated, then others will jostle to take their place.

It is important to take on board, when considering the case of Saudi Arabia, that many oil- or resource-rich states – be they monarchies or republics – have launched their own anti-corruption drives down the years. All have failed, and for roughly the same reasons.

Iraq, so different from Saudi Arabia in terms of history, religion and politics, is likewise entirely dependent on oil revenues. Its next biggest export used to be dates, though today even these are often imported from China. Corruption is chronic, particularly in giant infrastructure projects. Four years ago, I was in Baghdad early in the year, when there was heavier than usual rainfall, which led to a large part of the eastern side of the city disappearing under a foot of grey water mixed with sewage. This was despite $7bn (£5.3bn) supposedly spent on new sewers and drainage systems, but which, in the event, turned out not to function – or even to exist.

The problem in resource-rich states is that corruption is not marginal to political power, but central to acquiring it and keeping it. Corruption at the top is a form of patronage manipulated by those in charge, to create and reward a network of self-interested loyalists. It is the ruling family and its friends and allies who cherrypick what is profitable: this is as true of Saudi Arabia as it was true of Libya under Gaddafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and his successors, or Iraqi Kurdistan that was supposedly different from the rest of the country.

Corruption is a nebulous concept when it comes to states with arbitrary rulers, who can decide – unrestrained by law or democratic process – what is legal and what is illegal. What typifies the politics of oil states is that everybody is trying to plug into the oil revenues in order to get their share of the cake.

This is true at the top, but the same is the case of the rest of the population, or at least a large and favoured section of it. The Iraqi government pays $4bn a month to about seven million state employees and pensioners. These may or may not do productive work, but it would be politically risky to fire them because they are the base support of the regime in power.

Anti-corruption drives don’t work, because if they are at all serious, they soon begin to cut into the very roots of political power by touching the “untouchables”. At this point principled anti-corruption campaigners will find themselves in serious trouble and may have to flee the country, while the less-principled ones will become a feared weapon to be used against anybody whom the government wants to target.

A further consequence of the traditional anti-corruption drive is that it can paralyse government activities in general. This is because all officials, corrupt and incorrupt alike, know that they are vulnerable to investigation. “The safest course for them is to take no decision and sign no document which might be used or misused against them,” a frustrated American businessman told me in Baghdad some years ago. He added that it was only those so politically powerful that they did not have to fear legal sanctions who would take decisions – and such people were often the most corrupt of all.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

January 16, 2018
Mark Schuller
What is a “Shithole Country” and Why is Trump So Obsessed With Haiti?
Paul Street
Notes From a “Shithole” Superpower
Louisa Willcox
Keeper of the Flame for Wilderness: Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Sinister Plan to Kill the Iranian “Nukes” Deal
Franklin Lamb
Kafkaesque Impediments to Challenging Iran’s Theocracy
Norman Solomon
Why Senator Cardin is a Fitting Opponent for Chelsea Manning
Fred Gardner
GI Coffeehouses Recalled: a Compliment From General Westmoreland
Brian Terrell
Solidarity from Central Cellblock to Guantanamo
Don Fitz
Bondage Scandal: Looking Beneath the Surface
Rob Seimetz
#Resist Co-opting “Shithole”
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Unique
January 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Democrats and the End(s) of Politics
Paul Tritschler
Killing Floor: the Business of Animal Slaughter
Mike Garrity
In Targeting the Lynx, the Trump Administration Defies Facts, Law, and Science Once Again
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Hong Kong Politics: a Never-Ending Farce
Uri Avnery
Bibi’s Son (Or Three Men in a Car)
Dave Lindorff
Yesterday’s ‘Shithole Countries’ Can Become Classy Places Donald, and Vice Versa
Jeff Mackler
Lesser Evil Politics in Alabama
Jonah Raskin
Typewriters Still Smoking? An Interview with Underground Press Maven John Campbell McMillan
Jose-Antonio Orosco
Trump’s Comments Recall a Racist Past in Immigration Policy
David Macaray
Everything Seems to Be Going South
Kathy Kelly
41 Hearts Beating in Guantanamo
Weekend Edition
January 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
George Burchett
Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War: How Errol Morris Vindicated My Father, Wilfred Burchett
Roberto J. González
Starting Them Young: Is Facebook Hooking Children on Social Media?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Between the Null and the Void
Andrew Levine
Trump After Bannon: What Next?
John Davis
Mud-Slide
Ajamu Baraka
The Responsibility to Protect the World … from the United States
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Stirs the Methane Monster
Paul Street
Lazy Liberals and “the Trump Effect”
Carmen Rodriguez
Trump’s Attack on Salvadoran Migrants
Mike Whitney
Oprah for President, Really?
Francisco Cabanillas
The Hurricane After Maria
Luciana Bohne
World War I: Crime and Punishment
Steve Martinot
The Ideology of Pepper Spray: Force and Violence in a Can
Martin Billheimer
Beyond the 120 Days of the Silicon Valley Dolls
Patrick T. Hiller
An Olympic Glimmer on the Horizon – North Korea and South Korea Stepping Down the Escalation Ladder
Ron Jacobs
The Vietnamese War: a Different Take
Binoy Kampmark
Fuming in the White House: the Bannon-Trump Implosion
Joseph Natoli
What to Worry About and What Not to Worry About
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto, Bayer and Neoliberalism: A Case of Hobson’s Choice
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Bullying of Cuba
Kenneth Surin
Bigger in Texas
Arturo Desimone
The Untouchable Leader Who Stood Up to Gandhi
Peter Crowley
To Cheerleaders of Iran Protests: Iran is Not Our Enemy, a Sponsor of Terror or a Tyranny
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail