Once in a while, I get smart questions from smart people about what’s going on that actually surprise me – I’m surprised that you’re confounded. So here is an explanation. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about a “normal” country, one with the incentive structures of a democracy. No, this is a brutal dictatorship with poor rule of law and no separation of powers.
Consider the following: When cash is flowing into the swamp, a lot of corrupt people can get a piece of the pie, and the rulers can build entire empires of clientelism/corruption that, to the untrained eye, look like a “thriving neoliberal economy”.
However, when the money gets tight, the plunder isn’t sufficient to sustain too many. The swamp has to downsize. At this point, a purge is needed to cut off some of the beneficiaries of corruption. So how do you do this, as a dictator? You pose it as an “anti-corruption purge”, or as a campaign of “nationalization for the good of the country”. After all, the people you are cutting off are corrupt, what’s unsaid is that you’ve been the supreme leader of the corruption. What do you think of Mohammed bin Salman’s “anti-corruption purge” was?
Many examples of “corruption purge” being used as an excuse to consolidate power in this way. Putin comes to mind, as does Saudi Arabia’s MBS and now Egypt’s Abdulfattah al-Sisi. If you can point us to more let us know – tweet it on #ArabTyrantManual.
Anti-corruption moves (and economic populism moves) in a dictatorship don’t say “nobody should steal”, they say “only I can steal”. Economic populism moves (such as “nationalization”) in a dictatorship don’t say “the wealthy should share their wealth with the people”, they say “the wealthy should pay their protection money due to me”.
Corruption is not a “bug” in dictatorship, it is the very business model of dictatorship.