Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption sweep has led to the arrests of several high-level figures.
The arrests yesterday are evidence of how Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and heir to the throne, Mohammad Bin Salman is using his power to root out corruption and resistance to reform.
He has demonstrated his commitment to overhauling the Saudi economy and moving the kingdom towards a ‘moderate Islam open to the world and all religions’.
Should he be successful at the scale and speed intended, this would be one of the most significant transformations a country has ever undertaken, and one of the most necessary.
It is easy and intellectually lazy to unfavourably compare Western democracy to Gulf monarchies – but the reality is that only strong governance will be able to steer the Kingdom through such a difficult and wide-reaching transition, while managing the precariously balanced and powerful religious, corporate and political interests. The ambitions presented by the Crown Prince, essential to secure the country’s prosperity post-oil, would not be possible under the turbulence and weakness of a fledgling democracy.
Besides, there isn’t any huge demand or need for it. Look at what the UAE has achieved with strong and visionary leadership: it has turned itself into the most moderate, open, liberal and prosperous country in the region.
Democracy is a Western model which has served it well over the long term, but it does not work well in major societal transitions.
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Even Britain has suspended its democracy in moments of extreme national importance when efficient decision-making and leadership become more important than mass consultation, such as war. One only has to look at Brexit to see what issues can be caused by weak governance in such moments.
We shouldn’t focus our energies on criticising the structure of the Saudi state, they would be better directed at supporting its admirable recent initiatives and protecting them from those which seek to exploit democracy as a vehicle for Islamism, the single most destabilising influence in the Arabic world. It isn’t liberal democracy waiting in the wings in Saudi Arabia, it is Islamism in the form of groups the Muslim Brotherhood, which in every incarnation has defined itself by its differences with the non-Islamic world, and in the Egyptian government turned quickly to corruption and extremism.
The Arab Spring should serve as a warning about what happens when democracy is forced upon countries with no history of democratic philosophy or institutions
The same mistakes have been made in Europe, too, where French idealism and the rush for immediate democracy in the Revolution triggered years of violent disagreement, terror and bloodshed
If we want Mohammad Bin Salman’s reforming agenda to succeed, as we must, then we should accept that it can only happen within Saudi Arabia’s existing governing structures, not despite them.