Anne Applebaum writes: There are countries in which you are accused of an act of corruption and then you are arrested. And then there are countries in which someone decides to arrest you and only then are you called corrupt.
Saudi Arabia belongs to that second category. Last week, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, used the excuse of “corruption” to arrest several dozen people, including close members of his family, and to lock them up in the posh confines of the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.
Nobody took the charges at face value. “Corruption” — theft from the state — is not easily defined in Saudi Arabia, a place where the ruling family is the state, and vice versa.
Instead, those who know the country have argued that these arrests are part of a major political transition, an assault on the country’s sclerotic, traditional power structure. The crown prince appears to be “deliberately dismantling the traditional governance system in Saudi Arabia,” wrote The Post’s David Ignatius. The arrests were preceded by other changes: Talk of social modernization, for example — one of the world’s most misogynistic societies will soon allow women to drive — as well as of the diversification of an economy almost entirely dependent on oil.
But if those are the goals, these arrests also represent another setback for U.S. leadership in the era of President Trump, and a major blow to the prestige of a very different model of modernization and political transition. Most European countries were once monarchies like Saudi Arabia, but they handed over power to parliaments. The United States once denied women many rights, but it slowly enfranchised them. That Western model — to expand rights and freedom, to establish the rule of law and independent courts, to pass sovereignty from an aristocracy to a broader group of citizens — was long promoted by Americans as a matter of course. During what is remembered as the “Third Wave” of democratization, from the 1970s to the 1990s, dozens of countries in Latin America, Asia and central Europe sought to emulate this tradition and carry out this kind of reform.
Now that model is in retreat. Instead of following a Western model of modernization and reform, the crown prince has taken the path of China and Russia, where “political transition” means that power is retained by a tiny, very wealthy elite. [Continue reading…]