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The Anti-Corruption Drive in Saudi Arabia Is Doomed to Fail
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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.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia 
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  1. MEexpert says:

    An utterly useless article.

    • Replies: @Verymuchalive
  2. That new city the Saudis are planning to construct is projected to cost $500 billion. They have all the slogans down to appeal to Western SWPLs (renewable, sustainable, ecofriendly, etc). In reality will probably be the biggest bribefest in history (and maybe Saudi Arabia’s last).

    • Replies: @MEexpert
  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    There are some plausible points here.
    1) It seems that on some level, the basis of Saudi royal power is that the King is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. On some levels, of course, this is not true, and Saudi Arabia is a real country. But the Saudi King is the closest thing there is to a Pope of Islam. This matters greatly.
    2) Saudi Arabia has a rather bizarre close relationship with the United States, and this seems in some ways at the core of the House of Saud’s survival. This is true in spite of the fact that the US has now for some time seemingly been at war with Islam.

    These two points seem quite at odds, but if the current Saudi rulers have made some sort of deal with Trump, then all bets are off.

    • Replies: @Talha
  4. MEexpert says:

    1) It seems that on some level, the basis of Saudi royal power is that the King is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. On some levels, of course, this is not true, and Saudi Arabia is a real country. But the Saudi King is the closest thing there is to a Pope of Islam. This matters greatly.

    This comment is as useless as the article. Saudi Arabian King claims to be the “custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” All they do is to rake millions of dollars each year from the pilgrims. Saudi Arabia is a real country. What does this mean and what does it have to do with the previous statement? No one outside Saudi Arabia pays any attention to the King let alone consider him to be the pope. Saudi Arabia is the most hypocritical country and far removed from Islam.

    You are a total fake.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  5. The article brings to mind some themes.

    Margaret Thatcher saying about socialism working until you run out of other people’s money. How long will donors from US AID or any other agency escape exposure from a simple satellite photograph or other incontrovertible evidence? That photograph would be enough to start investigation of fraud.

    Robin Hood transplanted from Sherwood Forest to the Persian Gulf, operating in reverse. Poor citizens pay a tax to corruption in many ways.

  6. MEexpert says:
    @Anatoly Karlin

    The confiscation of the assets of all those princes will finance the construction of the new city.

  7. @MEexpert

    You mean an utterly useless journalist.

  8. In classic Islamic faith system, Saudi King was considered the custodian of the holy shrine of Madina and the Mecca. This was true till the King Faisal was assassinated by his young American educated and CIA programmed nephew. King Faisal was the one that enabled America’s shift from gold to petro dollar. He was also a staunch Islamic conservative who opposed the illegal occupation of Palestine by the criminal regime of Talmudic Zionists. He became an obstacle in implementing the ZioAmerican Plan to penetrate the Kingdom in order to control it’s future through the standardization of the petro dollar by exclusively selling Saudi oil for US dollars. After accomplishing Nixon-Kissinger deal with King Faisal, he was considered a serious impediment in desovietization of the Middle East in order to replace it with ZioAmerican control. After the murder of King Faisal, ZioAmerican Plan went in full action. Rest is history for anyone to read.
    After a well installed Plan by the Zio cabal, first line of attack was to neutralize most of the staunch old timer Saudi entities from power positions. Bander Bin Sultan, a young inexperienced royal prince was tactfully brought in by the CIA/Mossad operatives to replace an old timer staunch Islamist Ambassador to USA. After a very methodical brainwashing/conditioning of this young “wanna be American” prince Bander, new plan of action went smooth. Fast forward to young inexperienced “wanna be American” prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He was part of the Plan since the MBS was selected by the CIA to be indoctrinated from age of 14. His love affair with the America’s Hollywood, new technologies, glamor and power put him in the exact direction CIA-Mossad wanted. After his father King Salman became the King of Saudi Arabia, MBS’s plan of action went on high speed. The result is what we read today. It is the same scenario of the killing of King Faisal to pave the way for Mossad/CIA Plan. Iran’s technological climb became the obsession of Israel that resulted assassinations of Iranian scientists and the engineers by the Mossad agents. Apolitical idiot MBS is a perfect stooge to be used by Israel to start an Israeli obsession of war against Iran. So far America’s Deep State has installed reins on Israel’s repeated notices to the USA for attacking Iran. But this idiot young prince is a perfect fall guy for Israel to its bidding for attacking Iran thus by default, Israel would justify its joining Saudi Arabia in the expansion of this war. America will have no choice considering the sold-out, bought-off US Congress’s whores to fan the America’s sheeple to enter the Israeli war theater. Your guess is as good as anyone who knows the MO of the genocidal Talmudic Zionists of Israel! God help America coz a very large number of American soldiers will perish in this Zionist decimation of the Goyim fodder for the Jews!

    • Replies: @Almost Missouri
  9. So, Potemkin footage of Potemkin industries. High tech variation on an old scam

  10. Talha says:

    But the Saudi King is the closest thing there is to a Pope of Islam.


    That was a good one!


  11. Forgive me, but by historical maxim a period of power consolidation follows the installation of a new Emperor.

    Also by historical maxim the most ghastly executions will occur under the noblest virtues. Like ending corruption.

    Generally, one does well proposing the exact opposite motivations to whatever is most loudly proclaimed. So the asset forfeitures, in the hundreds of billions or more potentially – this is what states like Venezuela now and the Soviet Union before did. They were anti-corruption too, weren’t they?

    So I think that’s what anti-corruption means here. It’s the Mob having an anti-corruption campaign.

  12. renfro says:

    This is not a anti corruption movement or ‘democracy’ movement by bin Salam—its a heist —besides setting himself up as a dictator he’s after all the other princes considerable assets to replenish the treasury.
    Saudi has lost half its reserves- down now to 400 billion from 749 billion.
    Saudi as been burning money on Syria and Yemen as well as all the stipends and benefits they have away passed out to Saudi citizens to keep their subjects happy, not to mention the billions that are raked off by all the royal family princes…but now they are running out of money.

    bin Salam is also going t0 put Saudi oil company on a stock exchange to raise money…Trump is trying to get him to put it on the NY stock exchange. There are billions to be made by whatever investment firm(s) handle the IPO for SaudiOil.
    I am sure Trump is salivating over the thought of his WS buddies getting their on the Saudi IPO….it will be the deal of the century…..and he’s gonna want a piece of it….so no telling what he will let bin Salam get away with in the ME in exchange.

    I predict bin Salam will be assassinated sooner or later.

    btw…. As far as corruption goes, bin Salam owns a billion dollar yacht —think he’s gonna sell it and give the money back to Saudi treasury?…lol….I doubt it.

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    As you can read in my comment, I acknowledge that on some levels the “pope” remark is not true. But on some level it is true. Mecca is in some ways the Vatican of Islam, and the title of “Custodian” seems to be that which is most highly valued by the Saudi kings. Ultimately, the House of Saud controls how the Hajj works, and the Hajj is one of the central elements that creates some sense of unity among Muslims worldwide.

    What I meant by the assertion that Saudi Arabia is a real country is that it is not like the Vatican, which exists today only because it is the ruling authority of Roman Catholicism.

    Calling someone a “total fake” because you do not agree with or understand something is just dumb, and does not contribute to a useful exchange of ideas.

    • Replies: @Talha
    , @MEexpert
  14. anonymos says:

    Arab States Spent 130 Billion Dollars to Destroy Syria, Libya, Yemen: Algerian PM

    [Ouyahia made the remarks on Saturday at a time when much of the Middle East and North Africa is in turmoil, grappling with different crises, ranging from terrorism and insecurity to political uncertainty and foreign interference.

    Algeria maintains that regional states should settle their differences through dialog and that foreign meddling is to their detriment.

    Syria has been gripped by foreign-sponsored militancy since 2011. Takfirism, which is a trademark of many terrorist groups operating in Syria, is largely influenced by Wahhabism, the radical ideology dominating Saudi Arabia.

    Libya has further been struggling with violence and political uncertainty since the country’s former ruler Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011 and later killed in the wake of a US-led NATO military intervention. Daesh has been taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to increase its presence there.

    Yemen has also witnessed a deadly Saudi war since March 2015 which has led to a humanitarian crisis.

    Last Month, Qatar’s former deputy prime minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah said the United Arab Emirates had planned a military invasion of Qatar with thousands of US-trained mercenaries.

    The UAE plan for the military action was prepared before the ongoing Qatar rift, but it was never carried out as Washington did not give the green light to it, he noted.

    In late April, reports said the UAE was quietly expanding its military presence into Africa and the Middle East, namely in Eritrea and Yemen.]

    Death to ODED YINON Plan and it supporters.

  15. Talha says:

    Ultimately, the House of Saud controls how the Hajj works, and the Hajj is one of the central elements that creates some sense of unity among Muslims worldwide.

    I have to admit, this is true and they have a disproportionate level of influence due to this fact. Otherwise, they would be a bit like Brunei (oil producing monarchy), but bigger.

    However, the vast majority of Muslims do not look to them for religious guidance. Despite decades and billions of dollars, they still have only marginal influence on most day-to-day Muslims.


  16. @Mohammed Cohen

    I’m trying to follow your argument here…

    “King Faisal was the one that enabled America’s shift from gold to petro dollar.”

    Okay, but then you are also saying that the CIA trained/programmed Faisal’s nephew to kill him? If Faisal was doing their bidding, why kill him? It would seem he was not an “obstacle” at all, but an accomplice.

    • Replies: @MEexpert
  17. MEexpert says:

    Calling someone a “total fake” because you do not agree with or understand something is just dumb, and does not contribute to a useful exchange of ideas.

    It is because, lately, your comments have been totally off the track. Calling the King of Saudi Arabia like Pope is insane. There is no comparison. The Pope, whatever we may think of him is still a respectable man. The King and the entire house of Saud is a corrupt Mafia family. They are self proclaimed “custodian of the Holy places,” which they use to exploit the Muslims around the world. They don’t even maintain the sanctity of Makkah. When it suits their need, they bring in foreign non-Muslim workers and also troops to suppress the uprising. Some custodian?

    The house of Saud is a bunch of hypocrates. They ban the serving of alcohol on the airplanes while flying in the Saudi airspace but take every opportunity to drive to Bahrain and get drunk. There was a time they used to blacken the name of Israel from the books and magazines and now they lick the rear end of Netanyahu. Next time don’t be too generous with your commendations of the house of Saud and I won’t call you fake.

  18. MEexpert says:
    @Almost Missouri

    King Faisal was the last Saudi king who gave a damn about the Palestinians. He jolted the United States in 1973 by putting an oil embargo because of her support for Israel and had threatened to use the weapon again and thus became a CIA victim.

    • Agree: Talha
  19. ZenitFan says:

    Cockburn’s article — especially the last two paragraphs — could just as easily be about Mexico as Saudi Arabia, as anyone who has lived on the border can attest. Corruption is so thoroughly ingrained in Mexico that the country would screech to a halt if it were rooted out. That is why anti-corruption campaigns periodically announced by the government have always failed, and always will fail. The easiest way to get a clean bill of health in any such probe is to bribe the investigators.

    • Replies: @Nativist
  20. Faisal’s nephew was actually a CIA assassin?

    Does that mean that the CIA thinks it is more important to squash Palestinians than to enforce dollar hegemony?

  21. Nativist says:

    The observation concerning Mexico is spot on. When I first came to Mexico, more than 50 years ago, the publicly proclaimed goal of the government was to have potable water for all Mexicans within five years. That’s still a goal. By the way, the relative corruption standing of Mexico Is now far below that of India and China.

  22. anon • Disclaimer says:

    NOVEMBER 15, 2017
    Western Intelligence: Saad Hariri Resigned to Salvage Lebanon

    why does counter punch allow this shill for Israel and S Arabia pen column anymore?

    • Replies: @MEexpert
  23. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    This is true. Lamb is an imposter and CIA propagandist. He spreads USG lies against Syria and President Assad to deceive people to promote the mass murderers’ geopolitical influence in the region.

    Don’t trust CIA agent pose as journalist like Lamb.

  24. MEexpert says:

    I don’t know what has happened to this man. He used to be a big supporter of Hezbollah. His wife, a journalist, was killed by Israel bombing.

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