Saudi prince plays Robinhood, reformer

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is courting public opinion by tackling corruption and providing hand-outs to citizens from cash extracted from detained princes and ministers accused of graft.

The government 'recovered' $106 billion from some of the 381 figures confined since last November in a luxury hotel in Riyadh. Ninety of them were released after questioning and 165 agreed on sums to be paid to the treasury from fortunes earned from fraud, commissions and money laundering. As the anti-corruption campaign wound down, hold-outs were set to be transferred to a high-security prison where they will await prosecution "for other crimes".

The squeeze may be more of a public relations effort than a serious drive to secure funds the kingdom needs to fill its coffers. Writing in The New York Times, Nicolas Pelham argued that the $100 billion expected from the shakedown "would cover only his budget deficit [for] 2015 or equal the sum he hoped to raise from selling 5% of Aramco (the Saudi oil company)."

As Saudis have for decades derided descendants of the kingdom's founder Abdel Aziz bin Saud for luxurious living and massive corruption, targeting free-spending princes and businessmen is highly popular. Furthermore, the regime seems to have learnt a lesson from Iran's recent bout of protests against corruption and rising prices.

To offset a 5% sales tax and doubled petrol prices, the government announced bonus payments for a year of $13 billion from cash collected during the anti-corruption campaign. State employees, 70% of the citizen workforce, will receive an annual bonus and a monthly allowance of $266. Students, soldiers, and first-time home buyers are also set to enjoy benefits. Although tackling corruption by holding wealthy Saudis hostage until they surrender ill-gotten gains is an unprecedented policy, keeping the populace sweet with pay-outs is standard Saudi practice.

The detentions initially frightened firms considering investment in the crown prince's Vision 2030 plan to diversify and restructure the oil-dependent economy. However, investors have regained confidence and could take advantage of the coming launch of Saudi Aramco shares. Although the crown prince is staking his plan on creation of non-oil business, there is very little chance of liberating the kingdom from oil anytime soon since it provides 92% of government revenue, 97% of export earnings and more than half the kingdom's GDP.

Like other Saudi rulers who have traditionally put forward mega-projects designed to enhance their image rather than serve subjects or boost the economy, the crown prince plans to create a sports and entertainment city, a vast tourist resort, and a robot city.

While funding has been channelled through the Public Investment Fund, which he heads, there is no doubt these pet projects are meant to glorify him, contribute to his personal fortune, and consolidate his power. He has used his position to transform the consensual family governance into one-man rule by eliminating not only rivals from different branches but also his own branch.

Investigations have not, naturally, been made of the sources of King Salman's wealth or on the $1.5 billion spent by his favourite son, the crown prince, on a yacht, a Leonardo da Vinci painting and a French chateau. Freedom for corruption is not for every royal.

Reforms initiated by the ambitious crown prince include sops for Saudi women eager to enter the 21st century. He has eased obstructions against women taking jobs, allowed them to attend football matches (although in exclusive family compartments), and opened the way for them to drive cars by June. Meanwhile, Saudi women continue to be treated as minors and must apply to male relatives for the right to receive medical treatment, attend school and university, marry, and travel. Removing male "guardianship" could spark a revolt among tribal elders and clerics wedded to the ultra-conservative tenets of the Saudi Wahhabi sect.

Critical clerics have been jailed, along with human rights activists, and the crown prince says he seeks to return the kingdom to "moderate Islam". But Saudi missionaries still preach strict observance of Wahhabism and intolerance of any other interpretation of the faith. Saudi school texts are filled with denunciations of Shias and Western social and cultural mores.

While the take-over by the crown prince has not been a blessing for the kingdom itself, his foreign involvements have been a curse. Saudi Arabia continues to invest millions of dollars on religious outreach and mosque-building - estimated at $100 billion in recent years - and to wage an unwinnable 200 million dollars-a-day war in Yemen. The kingdom has divided the Gulf Cooperation Council by boycotting Qatar on the spurious pretext that Doha has financed IS and other jihadi groups fighting in Syria, while Riyadh has done exactly the same.

If the crown prince had not injected money and weapons into the battle against Damascus in March 2015, the Syrian conflict might have ended with the government in control of the country without three more years of bloodletting, destruction and the embroilment of external powers with imperialist agendas.

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