How to Bribe a Saudi Prince- lessons from a Dutch giant

Kees van XX’s job at Akzo Nobel was to bribe princes in Saudi Arabia to make sure that the company’s projects could get completed. It was a job that should not have been necessary. After all, Akzo Nobel was bringing jobs, money and new industrial plants to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government wanted Akzo Nobel to be there.

In Saudi Arabia a bribe is always accompanied by tea
In Saudi Arabia a bribe is always accompanied by tea

However, nothing gets done in Saudi Arabia without paying off a prince. Failure to do so means that your project will suddenly get shut down for failure to have the “required permits”.

Akzo Nobel knows the art or bribery world-wide
Akzo Nobel knows the art or bribery world-wide

The Dutch are very practical about paying bribes, and they make no moral judgements about the practice. Akzo Nobel’s international employee handbook states that there is a strict policy against paying bribes. However, the booklet explains that it is acceptable to make a “facilitating payment.”

Don't call it a bribe. Call it a "facilitating payment."
Don’t call it a bribe. Call it a “facilitating payment.”

Akzo Nobel goes to great lengths to explain the subtle difference between a Bribe and a Facilitating Payment. A Bribe gets someone to do something they should not be doing. A Facilitating Payment gets someone to do something which they are supposed to be doing anyway. A Facilitating Payment gets a government bureaucrat to stamp the correct documents. A Facilitating Payment makes sure the electricity to your job site does not suddenly get turned off.

A facilitating payment moves your paperwork to the top of the pile.
A facilitating payment moves your paperwork to the top of the pile.

The Dutchman Kees does not look like an expert on Saudi Arabia. He is six feet eight inches tall, has blonde hair and weighs 380 pounds. When visiting a Saudi palace he never is asked to show I.D. The guards find him easy to recognize.

But Kees is a real expert in the art of Facilitating Payments. There is more to this art than just having pockets full of cash. First it is necessary to find the right prince to pay off. Different Saudi princes have control over different regions and different parts of the economy. It takes an expert to know which prince can help your particular project.

Then there is the delicate matter of negotiating how much. Offering too little is a personal insult, while paying too much is a waste of company money. All of this negotiating takes place slowly over endless cups of tea.

Nothing gets built in Saudi Arabia without paying off a Saudi prince
Nothing gets built in Saudi Arabia without paying off a Saudi prince

Kees readily admits that he finds the whole process extremely tedious. He talks about one Saudi prince who he used to visit once a month to hand over an envelope of cash. This simple transaction took a good part of the day. It would be an insult to just walk in and give the prince the money.

Each month, Kees would share a meal with the prince and they would make small talk for several hours. At some point, Kees would place the envelope full of cash onto the table. Neither Kees nor the prince every looked at or mentioned the envelope. At the end of the meal, Kees would cordially say goodbye to the prince, and leave the envelope behind.

The most delicate negotiation Kees ever had was when one of Akzo Nobel’s construction projects got shut down despite his regular payments to the Saudi prince. The Army had blocked off access to the site, claiming the company lacked the required permits. Then a Saudi Army Major explained that he could remedy the situation for a “certain price”.

Kees had to go to the prince and firmly state that while Akzo Nobel was willing to make one Facilitating Payment it was certainly not going to pay 2 separate people for 1 project. The prince was furious at the Army Major for having encroached on the prince’s territory.

The prince assured Kees that the Major would be dealt with. The prince also explained in exact detail what forms Akzo Nobel could fill out to have the Saudi government reimburse Akzo Nobel for the lost time on the project. The next day the Army roadblock was gone and the Akzo Nobel project was up and running again. One month later Akzo Nobel got a check from the Saudi government. Kees never found out what happened to the Saudi Army Major. He assumes it was nothing good. You don’t double-cross a Saudi prince and have it forgotten.

All this happened a long time ago and the Saudi Arabian government states that this kind of open corruption no longer happens. If you believe that, we have a nice bridge in Brooklyn we would like to sell you.

Akzo Nobel works its industrial magic in China
Akzo Nobel works its industrial magic in China

What happened to Kees? He moved quickly up the ranks of Akzo Nobel. Men with his delicate skills are hard to find. He is now working in another country that claims to have no corruption, bribes or even facilitating payments. We are sure that Kees will do very well in his executive position in China.

See our story – Why the Dutch Tell Germans – “Bring Back our Bicycles”

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