Bring on the strongmen

NOVEMBER 12 — Something extradorindary is happening in Saudi Arabia.

Women who were famously forbidden from driving in the kingdom will be given the freedom of the road from January next year.

A host of other female freedoms are set to follow. Stringent guardian laws which meant that women can’t  travel, work, attend university, or even go to the doctor’s without the consent of a male guardian (typically a father or husband) are being relaxed and further reforms are expected.

As Saudi women have gained some freedom, a large number of senior princes and VIPs have found their liberty and privileges suddenly being taken away.

More than 10 senior princes have been arrested on charges of corruption. They have been joined by several ministers and former ministers, as well as dozens of senior businessmen and other assorted VIPs.

They stand accused of, among other things, fraudulently allocating contracts, bribing officials, inflating project costs — effectively various schemes to enrich themselves at the expense of the Saudi government and public.

The majority of those detained have been housed in the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh — a luxurious detention centre to be sure, but a huge shock for men used to the freedom to roam the world and dispense millions and  billions almost at will.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh. — Picture from AFP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh. — Picture from AFP

Some estimates say that the total value of the corruption attributed to the detainees nears 1 trillion dollars (RM4 trillion).

Such an extensive crackdown on senior officials including members of the royal family is without precedent in the conservative kingdom.

A quick glance at social media, however, indicates that a large number of Saudis seem to appreciate the reforms and moves against corruption.

The crackdown is attributed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) who has been praised internationally — by US President Trump etc for his efforts.

The 32-year-old crown prince has only risen to such power and prominence in the last five years. His father King Salman succeeded his own half-brother King Abdullah in 2015.

MBS was only appointed Crown Prince in June this year and in the few months since his ascension he has moved fast to consolidate power.

He has moved against various uncles and cousins who might have had claims on the throne and this latest crackdown further cements his position as Saudi Arabia’s driving force.

For many around the world, his moves against corruption, his espousal of more liberal values and firm action against religious extremists in the kingdom have been welcome.

And in terms of taking a hard line against corruption and religious extremism, he’s not alone.

Other strongmen in the Middle East  -- Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for example -- have mounted extensive purges and crackdowns against hardliners.

Meanwhile in China, President Xi Jinping has mounted a widespread anti-corruption campaign that has seen thousands of senior party members and leaders jailed.

Of course rooting out corruption is welcome — theft and graft essentially take from the people and impact a nation’s citizens.

But sitting in this part of the world I’m left wondering why Asian nations seem to rely on strongmen for radical reform and anti-corruption drives.

Do we really need princes, sultans or dynastic politicians to stand up for secularism and weed out the corrupt?

Surely not. Surely with decades of independence behind us, large economies and in some cases parliamentary systems dating back decades, we can deliver change and reform without coups and crackdowns and purges?

Ultimately strongmen often start out with impressive initiatives but end up resorting to the same favour and kickback-based systems of their predecessors in order to secure the favours and capital that keep them in power.

As flawed as they are, mutli-party democracies with strong judiciaries and a reasonably free media have a better track record of dealing with egregious cases of corruption. 

However, few Asian nations have got to this point — possibly South Korea and Taiwan — but how are the rest of us meant to get there? Existing systems appear to change incrementally until a strongman steps in.

The judicial systems prevalent in this part of the world are too slow and cannot take the initiative in terms of stopping corruption.

Someone has to actually file cases and in countries where the media is controlled, few have the information to take action.

Perhaps the solution is some sort of empowered upper-house — a (largely unelected) senate consisting of senior professionals, ex-judges, editors and even a few ordinary citizens specifically empowered to initiate action (not prosecute) against graft.

So really a very high profile and independent national anti-corruption body.

But again implementing this sort of system and working through its modalities is hardly easy. Especially in our hidebound systems. 

Which is why I do see the appeal of the strongman but while I’m not belittling MBS’s efforts, I just feel its unsustainable. Moribund systems need to be shaken up but the question is who should be doing the shaking?

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