Will the Saudi People Remain Bystanders?

Most top-down anti-corruption campaigns are fig leaves for power struggles. In societies like China and Saudi Arabia, where corruption is endemic, the losers are accused of corruption with the silly implication that the accusers (winners) are clean and genuinely motivated to fight corruption.

This week King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a supreme anti-corruption committee led by his son "Crown Prince" of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) that immediately arrested scores of political rivals. This was done after no formal investigations or according to any sort of laws. MBS is attempting power-consolidation in the name of top-down "reform." He is in danger of over-reaching.

MBS is only 32 years old. A frontal attack on the older generation, as well as an attack on the conservative clerics, and Yemen, and Qatar, has a low-probability of success. The Royal family has power largely concentrated (as in most societies) in people who are in their 50s through 70s. This older generation is numerous and because of typical social interactions, highly intertwined. The war in Yemen has been extremely costly to the Saudi government, and catastrophic to the Yemeni people. Qatar has obtained the support of Turkey, Iran and others and has fended off isolation. Wahabbi/Salifi clerics have substantially infected huge swaths of the Sunni Muslim world and will not be easily sidelined or eliminated.

Not only is MBS not using the rule of law, he is not calling on people power to back him up, even though presumably the immense numbers of young people (and women) who could come to the streets would be supportive of many of the changes that he has proposed (or alluded to). MBS is attempting "top-down" reform with the intention to consolidate personal power, rather than to invite the public to get its foot in the door of power politics. This is not healthy for the future for a democracy in Saudi Arabia. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Despite some "good" intentions, a successful consolidation of power is unlikely to generate the movement towards human rights and a cohesive society. Even if internal reforms are partially successful, the regional picture looks grim with the new Saudi attempt for a hegemonic dominance of its neighbors as manifested in its brutal war on Yemen and its attacks towards Qatar.

Hopefully, the people of Saudi Arabia will not just be by-standers but will see the need and value of asserting their voices to end the feudalistic power struggles which benefit the very few. To avoid civil war and blood-letting, people power assertion would need to be done in a transparent, disciplined and strategic manner. Change is desperately needed. But no one wants a civil war. No one wants a dictator. No one wants a regional hegemon.

Michael Beer is Executive Director of Nonviolence International which is an organization that works to support nonviolent people power around the world.