It was perhaps inevitable that the Saudi royal purge, in which 11 princes and dozens of bureaucrats stand accused of corruption, would be compared with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s highly public, and highly selective, anti-graft campaigns. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who initiated the crackdown, resembles Putin in other dangerous ways, too.
There is no question that Saudi Arabia has long been thoroughly corrupt. With thousands of royals alone, who, in an absolute monarchy, naturally see the public purse as their own, that’s no surprise. But talking about it has never been safe, even for a prince. In the last three years — just as MbS, as the crown prince is known, rose to power — three dissident members of the Saudi royal family have been kidnapped in Europe and flown clandestinely home. The most senior of them, Prince Sultan bin Turki, nephew to King Fahd, who ruled Saudi Arabia until 2005, was an outspoken critic of corrupt practices in the Saudi government. The Saudis kidnapped him and 20 members of his entourage in February, 2016, and he has not been seen since soldiers violently subdued him at the Riyadh airport.
In any authoritarian regime, fighting corruption can only be a pretext for power consolidation because the nature of the system invites corruption. It’s always of the same kind: People close to the source of power get the most lucrative government orders. Prince Miteb bib Abdullah, former head of the National Guard, allegedly awarded $10 million in contracts to his own companies; former Riyadh governor Turki bin Abdullah is accused of doing the same on the lucrative Riyadh Metro project.
As in Russia and China, however, people around the throne who don’t line their pockets are viewed with more suspicion than those who do. A purge of several dozen individuals, including the relatively liberal billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — who, for example, advocated lifting Saudi Arabia’s driving ban for women long before MbS decided to lift it — doesn’t change the essence of the regime and is as alarming as Putin’s 2003 arrest of oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. That move cemented Putin’s power and made other wealthy Russians fall into line, leading eventually to the recentralization and tight government control of the Russian economy.
It’s harder, however, to feel sorry for the princes, imprisoned in a luxury hotel, than for self-made billionaire Khodorkovsky, who landed in Russia’s unforgiving prison system. Other aspects of the crown prince’s Putin-like behavior are more troubling.
Just before he headed up the new anti-corruption body that started the purge, MbS announced he’d build a multibillion-dollar sci-fi city in the desert, called Neom. There’s literally nothing on the site today, but the prince has it all in his head — the shining skyscrapers, the robots running every process, the global hub stretching between Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the oasis of relative freedom in which women will be able to share public spaces with men but no alcohol will be allowed. It’s a more expensive version of Sochi, Putin’s subtropical host of a winter Olympics that cost $50 billion and dissuaded many a city from applying to host future Games.
In both cases, the stated goal was to make an authoritarian country look more open to the world, to demonstrate a futuristic vision in an oasis that would for years receive more investment than the rest of the country. Sochi now has plenty of gleaming new buildings, but it failed to rebrand Russia in the world’s eyes because, just as the Olympics were wrapping up, Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea.
Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his son also appears more belligerent than under their predecessors. The intervention in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the most recent accusations of Iran of committing an “act of war” against the kingdom and the emergence of Saad Al-Hariri in Riyadh after his resignation as prime minister of Lebanon are all signs that the kingdom is spoiling for war with Iran. For now, any conflict that doesn’t involve a direct showdown will do. Putin, too, has preferred indirect conflict with his Western adversaries, both in the former Soviet Union and in Syria.
In the Syrian conflict, Putin is on the same side as Iran, and that might explain King Salman’s recent visit to Moscow and the frequent contacts between MbS and the Kremlin. Given the recent failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East, both Russia and Saudi Arabia feel they can play a more active role, which makes it necessary for them to coordinate. The king, his heir and the Russian president speak the same language: They are leaders who can make quick, momentous decisions without bothering about domestic checks and balances. Their “anti-corruption campaigns” help them keep opponents in check. Their vanity projects, beneath the candy wrappers with English-language slogans about the future, are about personal ambition on a global scale rather than about fixing their countries’ backward, commodity-based economies for future generations.
Like MbS with his Saudi Vision 2030, Putin’s prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, loves grand visions and long-term programs. Efforts to update them never stop in Moscow — Russia, too, has its “Strategy 2030.”
There’s a strong temptation for Western commentators, especially U.S. ones, to portray MbS as a reformist trying to bring the House of Saud into the modern world and Putin as a retrograde dictator taking Russia into the past. But the only reason this temptation to differentiate exists is that Saudi Arabia is a traditional U.S. ally, and the enemy of an old enemy — Iran.
In reality, there are far more similarities than differences between the world’s two most important oil dictatorships. Their interests align on their most important market. Together, they’ve talked up oil prices to a level that allows them to maintain spending on defense and mega-projects. Their geopolitical interests don’t align today, but that won’t stand in the way of their natural mutual attraction.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.