Stock - Saudi economy / Riyadh skyline
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Image Credit: Bloomberg

Back in the heyday when the region was awash with petrodollars and Saudi Arabia found itself earning more cash than it could spend, one of the unfortunate by-products of such a bounty was the rapid rise of corruption in a section of the public sector with many department heads getting fat over the years at the expense of the public.

Following the initial boom of development in the 80s, things came to a gradual standstill as money dried up and many of the projects remained unfinished or had not yet started. A good example is the sewage and water delivery networks which still remain unfinished in portions of the major cities. The money was there, the government had clearly budgeted and allocated its expenditure, but where it ended up was anywhere except towards its designed goal.

While there were some muted calls then to draw attention to corruption, they were not enough to deter some honchos in the public sectors from lining their pockets. Public trust had long been forgotten.

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During late King Abdullah’s reign a royal decree was issued in March 2011 for the formation of a national commission (NACC) to combat corruption. This body was set up to deal with all forms of financial and administrative graft, and also promote the principle of transparency.

At the time, its chairman vowed to spare no one in its campaign to stamp out mismanagement and other malpractices at public establishments, adding that there would be no exception. “We will not hesitate to strike at corruption wherever it is. Our crackdown will target small and bigheads … no one, whoever he is, will be excluded in line with instruction by King Abdullah.”

Stealing public funds

In the following years, there were some large-scale arrests of public figures who had been stealing public funds, but corruption didn’t stop altogether.

In 2017, King Salman ordered the creation of a powerful new anticorruption committee, headed by the Crown Prince, giving the anticorruption committee the ‘right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel, or freeze the assets of anyone it deems corrupt.’

Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during Cabinet meeting. Image Credit: SPA

To give more teeth to the newly formed anticorruption body, King Salman ordered protection for financial and corporate whistle-blowers as part of an anticorruption drive in the country. The king’s decree was to protect employees from a “violation of their privileges or rights.” The stated aim was to protect the interests of citizens and residents who did their duty to report cases of corruption and to ensure that they were not harmed by the reporting of the violations.

Over the past years since various cases of arrests and the recovery of public funds ranging in the billions has taken place. Among those arrested were princes, high-ranking military officers, and department heads of several large public sectors among others. King Salman and the Crown Prince made it clear that corruption was not to be tolerated at any level and gave the anticorruption commission the authority to go after the offenders.

All this sat well with a weary public accustomed to blatant stealing by public officials over the past decades. As arrests were announced, there was no general sympathy for the plight of those rounded up as almost all felt that they had it coming. Saudi Arabia improved on the Global Corruption Index, moving up several places.

KAU corruption

People sat up and took notice a few days ago when it was announced that King Salman had sacked the President of King Abdulaziz University (KAU), Dr. Abdurrahman Al-Youbi, over corruption charges, ordering his arrest and turning him over to investigation authorities.

The king’s order said that the decision was based on a report submitted by the Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority (Nazaha) against Al-Youbi. “Al-Youbi committed crimes that include exploiting his official powers for personal interest, embezzlement of university funds, money laundering, and forgery,” the royal order read. The amount was in excess of SAR 500 million ($133 million).

It seems that Dr. Aryoubi was exploiting his position as the head of one of the kingdom’s largest government-funded universities to enrich himself and close relatives and associates with the windfall that must have come over a certain period of time. One of the lessons to be learned from this latest case of gross embezzlement of public funds is the need to increase financial vigilance in the public sector and not allow culprits to walk away.

Such is the intent of the King and the Crown Prince and the people are with him all the way.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena