Amal Abdulaziz al-Hazzani
Saudi journalist

When The Corrupts’ Activities Were Thwarted

At the end of February 2011, the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, may God have mercy upon his soul, returned from a medical trip abroad. Out of his delight at arriving, he gave a generous gift to the Saudi people of grants, loans and facilitation amounting to 134 billion Saudi Riyals. That month, a barrel of oil had a cost of $124. Oil revenues were booming, having peaked at over $166 a barrel on the year of the financial crisis, known as the “mortgage crisis” in 2008. Nonetheless, the funds for the gift were taken from the Monetary Agency’s reserves.

At the time, I wrote an article on the matter and the following is an excerpt: “The billions offered by King Abdullah’s praise apprehensions among the people for fear of bureaucracy and the corrupt. In Saudi Arabia, there is no dictatorial ruler monopolizing power or an opposition suppressed by an electoral political system, nor is the security apparatus a tyrannical tool... People’s fears are mostly focused on one thing: A significant chunk of the country’s revenues going to the hands of those who do not deserve them. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia needs to establish an independent anti-corruption agency overseen by an individual capable of facing the anticipated resistance and is not susceptible to being made to feel weak, deficient, or hesitant. For he is the regime’s conscience."

The National Anti-Corruption Agency was established, but it was not as effective as the late King Abdullah had hoped. The corruption tsunami was much too powerful.

The scale of corruption that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman discussed last week is not a facile issue. It is difficult to stand before more than 20 million citizens and forthrightly explicate a bitter truth. Up to 247 billion riyal, in addition to tens of billions in assets, all revenue that belongs to the state, were being embezzled for decades, up to 15 percent of the wealthy state’s budget.

The sum lost is equivalent to the combined budgets of all the North African states. This matter is akin to an earthquake striking the fundamentals of the Saudi economy and had negative repercussions on employment and projects for which money had been allocated, especially in infrastructure. The irony is that in 2016, as plans for economic, political and social reform were being put on the government’s table, oil prices collapsed, dropping to $36 a barrel at the beginning of the year! This was a severe challenge to the Saudi government. Under such circumstances, the question was, how could it possibly implement a deep and comprehensive vision for success amid ambiguous economic conditions beset by suspicions of corruption, all while oil prices were plummeting because the OPEC + countries disagreed on production? The situation was perilous in every sense of the word, and it seemed as though ambitions arrived on a midnight train alone...

The problem with corruption is not limited to its diminishment of our wealth and reduction of our resources. Rather, it also generalizes an unwavering institutional culture, and, worst of all, it could affect the judicial system, the heart of the state’s integrity. The prince’s latest speech went over several undertakings through which Saudi Arabia had made huge strides over the past four years. Home-ownership rates have risen, technical progress has been made, and women’s conditions have improved. In my opinion, however, the fight against corruption, whether financial or administrative, is what protected the state and allowed it to endure despite the successive shocks it underwent. With the Saudi Crown Prince having said the amount recovered through anti-corruption was 20 percent of non-oil revenues and that he was thereby able to protect employees’ salaries, we can assess the situation less diplomatically. We were on the brink of a severe economic crisis that would have hit the public sector if it weren’t for the serious effort made to curb corruption and prevent state revenues from going to the hands of the corrupt. Indeed, these efforts made Saudi Arabia an exemplar for countries that suffer from the ravaging effects of corruption and seek to imbue their wars on elites’ crimes with such steadfastness.

Can a gas and oil-rich country face crises and collapse economically? The answer is yes, and the examples are many. Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela are poorer than countries that do not have resources but managed to turn a new black page and redesign themselves, with planning and determination fueling their launch. Fighting corruption resolutely and vigorously saved the Kingdom’s economy from a blow that would have left it in a situation that is not merely painful, but excruciating, as it would have stemmed from deep within the country’s social fabric.

Not only thieves, con-men and traitors are corrupt; every citizen who lost their way, whose heart was led astray from love of the homeland, putting himself before it, is corrupt!