One of the by-products of regional uncertainty and the Arab Spring has been the steady rise in oil prices. And this added revenue has helped rapidly fill state coffers. Today, some of the GCC countries are putting that revenue to task in mega-billion projects across the land.
In Saudi Arabia alone, it is estimated that over $77 billion have been allocated for major projects which include the setting up of industrial cities and massive infrastructure development across the country. With that kind of money floating around, it has become very tempting to be seduced into the arms of corrupt business practices.
It should be noted that corruption has been one of the elements that served as a springboard to the Arab Spring. And we have not been immune to it. Perhaps, the most public example was brought up following the Jeddah rains in 2009 which caused the deaths of over 130 people by the resulting floods. It was determined that bribery played a major part with city officials granting housing permits illegally on city land not zoned as residential areas.
According to a published report at the time, the flood disaster exposed bribery and other corruption practices in government departments, which also suffered from the absence of clear policies. “What happened in Jeddah clearly illustrated the poor performance of government departments because of bribery and widespread corruption. These institutions are also suffering from the lack of clear policies and action plans besides bureaucratic complications in decision-making.”
Three years on, and the trial of that tragic incident is still in progress with charges and counter-charges. Most of the defendants occupied key positions in the Jeddah Mayoralty but are currently under suspension pending the outcome of the trial. Many of the defendants who had previously admitted their complicity in taking bribes and looking the other way are today retracting their confessions, stating that such admissions were made under duress. Those following the case wonder if it would eventually be swept under dismissed or reduced charges as the web of deceit could entangle a wide spectrum of public sector officials.
They may be justified in their reasoning by the recent acquittal of six former soccer club officials accused of bribery and illegal appropriation of public land. According to published reports, the six defendants ‘retracted their earlier testimonies alleging that they were extracted under duress, which the board’s representative denied. After the hearing, the court took a 30-minute recess for consultation with the panel members. They were fined SR10, 000 each. All six defendants expressed their satisfaction with the verdict while the prosecution said it will contest the ruling.’ Such verdicts do not inspire confidence in a judicial system that has become suspect as of late, with charges of malpractices and corruption among those dispensing justice!
In another instance, in a major charitable organization with funding in the millions, the directors of the charity started first with charitable acts towards themselves. Trusted with dispersing much needed relief by the needy, some went so far as to pad up their per diems by falsifying the number of days on their trips or on their flight expenses! And since audit and accountability were sketchy at best, they got away with it.
A new anti-corruption body was formed at the behest of the King himself to stem the rising tide of corruption and report on the offenders. King Abdullah issued a royal decree in March 2011 for the formation of the commission. This body is set up to deal with all forms of financial and administrative graft, and also promote the principle of transparency.
Earlier this year, the chairman of the National Authority for Combating Corruption (NACC) affirmed its intent 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 big heads…no one, whoever he is, will be excluded in line with instruction by King Abdullah.” Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Sharif was quoted as saying.
He also added that the public should also play an active part in alerting the appropriate authorities. “Every one has a role to play in this respect whether he is an official, a businessman, a citizen, a journalist or a scholar…the Kingdom’s anti-corruption strategy also stresses that school curricula must include lessons advocating sincerity and protection of public funds.”
There are calls for more social transparency and economic reforms. Declaration of assets by public servants can be one tool of checking and arresting illegal gotten gains. Public institutions will need to set up ‘fair and sustainable compliance management systems.’ This will help to determine areas vulnerable to corruption. They should also launch anti-corruption training for all employees. Whistle-blowing should be encouraged. And finally, public service organizations should promote the message to the business sector that the contract with best bid and not the biggest bribe will be the winner.
It may take a while, and perhaps more than a few jail sentences, but we all must set our course on the road to arresting the rampant spread of bribery and corruption if not stopping it altogether. The alternative would be nothing short of eroding the moral fiber that binds society.