Al-Sauds, Corruption and Islam--Strange Bedfellows

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Salman bin Abdulaziz sowed the destruction of Al-Saud rule with his first decision as king—discarding his tribe’s long-held rule of succession by catapulting his 29-year old son, Prince Mohammad, to Deputy Crown Prince, ahead of numerous more senior princes in the line of succession. Later, he made matters worse by elevating him to the position of Crown Prince.

Most recently, over the weekend, a royal decree announced the formation of an anti-corruption committee, headed by Prince Mohammad, with almost unlimited powers to investigate alleged cases of corruption and to arrest suspects. The decree states, "Our homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable." On the premise of corruption, Prince Mohammad immediately issued arrest warrants for a number of his more senior cousins, sitting and former cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen. As usual, the government-controlled Saudi press reported the party line that embraced these moves as steps towards modernization and reform (to appeal to young Saudis) and the council of clerics backed them in the name of Islam’s prohibition of corruption (to make them palatable to religious Muslims).

What is going on? Are these reforms? Are they a reflection of Islam? Could anything boomerang on the United States?

It would be welcome if Prince Mohammad were truly engaged in a program of reform but he is not. The most corrupt entity in the country is the ruling Al-Saud tribe. There is no wall between the national treasury and the Al-Sauds’ obscene lifestyle. They take whatever they want from the treasury. They are entangled in most aspects of the country’s business dealings. And they are above the law. Prince Mohammad’s actions would have some credibility if he and his father were not corrupt to the core. He is not engaged in reforming the country and upholding Islamic values, but is instead using the banner of Islam and reform to neutralize his rivals and those who reportedly resent and oppose him.

All change in Saudi Arabia, and indeed in most Muslim countries, is invariably “defended” by appealing to Islam. While Islam condemns corruption and King Salman and his favorite son are among the most corrupt, are they at least upholding the most important prescriptions of Islam?

(i) According to Islam, God gave humanity freedom, freedom from oppression, to choose their religion and their rulers (and no rule by inheritance), rulers who in turn should be the most rule-abiding members of their community. (ii) There should be respect for God’s creation—human rights and preservation of the environment and resources for future generations; with economic prosperity and sharing God’s bounty with others for a healthy community. (iii) The road-map for economic prosperity is a market economy with enforced rules, regulations and supervision that embraces risk sharing, reduces uncertainty and transaction costs in all dealings; with equal opportunities for advancement that includes access to education and healthcare. It is a system that encourages hard work, modest lifestyles and limited income and wealth inequalities. Islam mandates poverty eradication and the provision of the necessities for a dignified life for all those who cannot take care of themselves. (iv) And all along the central message of Islam is justice, which includes equality before the law.

If we accept this summary description of Islamic teachings, what is a fair grade for King Salman and Prince Mohammad? A solid “F”.

In their defense, the Al-Sauds did not invent oppressive and corrupt rule in Muslim communities. That distinction goes all the way back to about 665, under the Caliphate of Muawiyah I, when pliant and corrupt clerics took one verse from the Quran (Chapter 4, Verse 59) and interpreted it as support for total obedience to those in positions of power no matter their legitimacy, an interpretation that ignores the totality of the Quran and the example of the Prophet Mohammad. In part because of this self-serving interpretation and the corrupt rule of Muslim rulers over the centuries, Muslim countries have suffered and today Islamic values are much better reflected in the countries of Northern Europe (Islamicity Indices).

Will these intrigues thousands of miles away from the United States boomerang? Before we answer this question, we should mention other fallout of Prince Mohammad’s policies: his endless war in Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of fatalities and threatens the lives of 20 million Yemenis; his support for the ongoing oppression in Bahrain; and the government’s oppression of Saudi citizens in the village of Al-Awamiyah in Eastern Saudi Arabia. The victims of these crimes against humanity and their relatives are likely to connect them to King Salman and his son as well as to their foreign supporters—the United States and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, there will be blood on American hands. Making matters worse, President Trump has come out squarely behind the King and his son, even going so far as to say that the United States will not bring up human rights as an issue in whatever they do—fanning the fires of the Sunni-Shia split that has lingered for over 1300 years.

What’s in store? Saudi Arabia will surely blow up and the only question is how fast. Iran will receive a boost in the Persian Gulf with a floundering Saudi Arabia and a retreating United States. The United States will lose its support among the 17,000-20,000 members of the house of Saud by supporting King Salman and his son and create new enemies it did not need all over the Persian Gulf region. And to top it off, there is no end in sight to these conflicts unless the United States changes tack—abandons its support of dictators and embraces peaceful reforms and effective institutions to restore hope and prosperity to Muslim countries.