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RetroSaudi: Crime

November 17, 2017


Ministry of the Interior, Riyadh

RetroSaudi continues with this piece I wrote in 1987 about crime in Saudi Arabia. My commentary thirty years later suggests that much has changed since then.

Then (1987):

There is no crime in Saudi Arabia except on Fridays. That’s when the gruesome punishments take place that we all hear about. But floggings, beheadings and amputations cover only specific offences reckoned by Islamic law to be serious: murder, rape, theft and the like. The run of the mill villain is rewarded by jail and fines, as in most judicial systems.

The Islamic system of justice is known as the Sharia, which is the Arabic word for “the path”, or “road”. Aficionados of the Ayatollah will be familiar with this code, which is based on the Holy Koran, and on the sayings of the Prophet as interpreted by successions of scholars through the ages. Of course, the precise flavour of the version adopted by a particular country is often directly linked with the nationality of the scholar whose interpretations prevail.

There are those who argue that to adopt a set of rules made for a bunch of supersitious desert-dwellers fifteen hundred years ago is perhaps a retrograde step in an age in which computers can store the contents of the Koran on a pinhead. It’s worth remembering that one of the leading religious sheikhs, Ibn Baz, believes that the earth is flat, and that the Americans conned the world by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on an earthly desert back in 1969.

Among the more interesting rulings in the Sharia is that it’s a sin to pay or take interest, Over the years the rule has been inconsistently applied. In the good times the banks openly charged and paid interest. The government was the source of all wealth; and directly or indirectly it held huge stakes in the Kingdom’s banks. Interest was cheap and big business borrowed to the hilt to finance their factories, shopping centres and office blocks. Then the big gusher started to dry up; government contracts got scarce and the economy went badly on the slide, leaving many of the’business grandees high and dry. The total debts of some of the more notable casualties would have been enough to keep a small country like Thailand afloat for a year.

When the banks called in their loans, the debtors, in the uniquely self-righteous style of the profoundly bankrupt, went on the offensive. Invoking what the sheikhs had been preaching for years, they declared that they had been sinfully coerced into paying interest. Any part of the debt that arose through unpaid interest, they argued, should be cancelled.

Since some of these debts were years old, and had accrued massive interest, the banks threw up their hands in horror. To no avail, for the clergymen who sit in the Sharia Court predictably ruled in favour of the debtors. Overnight some of the biggest debts were sliced in half, and the banks found themselves with billions of riyals of open-ended, interest-free loans on their hands and no foreseeable chance of getting any of it back. Not so the government itself, which invested the huge surpluses of the boom years in nice little interest-bearing investments, such as bonds, throughout the sinful West.

Beneath the stratospheric heights of international finance, the Saudis are often given to boast that thanks to the Sharia theirs is the most law-abiding society in the world. Certainly crimes against the person, other than those arising through blood feuds or tribal rivalry (tribal wars were only replaced by suicidal driving as the nation’s favourite hobby within the last thirty years), are rare. But to advertise the low crime rate as a symbol of the people’s submission to the will of God, is to my mind somewhat fanciful.

The rewards of honesty

I suspect, having always been a natural opponent of the flog’ em and hang’ em lobby, that if the Kingdom truly has a dramatically lower crime rate than its neighbours, it’s because the country isn’t gripped by extremes of poverty like Egypt and Sudan. Since at least some of the wealth has trickled down to the lowest social levels (far more than in the Shah’s Iran), there’s less crime born of desperation here, except perhaps on the part of those down to their last ten million dollars. Offences against the person are rarely reported even if committed; rapes occasionally take place in western compounds, and one sometimes hears of some poor worker murdered by his mates, but these are rare, and therefore noteworthy, events.

The most common and obvious crimes happen thousands of times a day in full view of everybody, on the roads. While the citizens of Saudi Arabia may lag behind the rest of the world in the achievements of its specialist criminal fraternity, they make up for it on the road. Dangerously and flamboyantly. But that’s another story.

Now (2017):

I never witnessed an execution in those days, deliberately. I knew where they took place and stayed well away. What I didn’t mention was that the list of capital offenses was not confined to murder and rape. It included drug smuggling and sorcery. Yes, sorcery.

I also didn’t mention corruption, which I shall write about some other time.

Fast forward thirty years, and the picture is quite different. Saudi Arabia is starting to resemble other countries in the amount of petty crime on the streets: mugging, pick-pocketing, car theft and so forth. Districts of Riyadh and Jeddah that used to be quite safe to wander through – such as Batha and Balad – are no longer so.

Back in the day, it was said that you could leave your car unlocked, and nothing would disappear from it. Not now.

Why the change? Two major reasons. Since 1987, the number of illegal immigrants – people without papers, living on their wits and scratching a living any which way, has increased substantially. So much so that the government launched a major crackdown between 2012 and 2015 that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people – especially from the Indian subcontinent – being deported.

Also there has been a massive increase in the Saudi population, with the result that today 70% of the population is under 30 years old. The economy has been unable to provide enough jobs for these youngsters, which has meant that there are many people with plenty of time and little to do. Some have resorted to petty crime. Others have gone to Syria to fight for ISIS.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Kingdom is not exactly awash with sources of entertainment, so young males get their kicks where they can – through stimulants such as captagon, and for those who can afford it, suicidal drifting – as in driving cars on two wheels – on highways outside the cities.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has resolved to make his country more fun. There’s talk of cinemas and entertainment zones to persuade the young to stay at home rather than disappear to the fleshpots of Dubai whenever they can. I’m sure that will help, though what’s on offer in Dubai far exceeds such innocent pleasures as going to the movies.

As for the punishments for which Saudi Arabia is famous, the number of executions has increased substantially over the past three years, which reflects the draconian penalties for acts that the government considers terrorism.

There has also been an increase in prosecutions for white-collar crimes such as fraud and forgery, some of them involving banks and high-profile businessmen, of which the most spectacular has been the dispute between the privately owned Saad and Gosaibi groups. The recent arrest of the head of the Saad Group – as reported here by the New Yorker – undoubtedly raises the stakes.

Had not Maan Al-Sanea’s incarceration been followed by the mass round-up of prominent princes and businessmen in Mohammed bin Salman’s recent corruption crackdown, I suspect that his case would be attracting far more attention today.

These are busy times for the Ministry of the Interior, whose headquarters (above) hovers over Riyadh like some all-seeing alien spaceship.

Will things settle down soon? Not, I suspect, until Saudi Arabia has gone some way towards resolving its political, social and economic challenges.

And a doubling of the price of oil might also help.

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