In a region where the governance news is seldom good, on May 6 something very unusual happened in Qatar.
The Minister of Finance, Ali Sharif al-Emadi, was taken in for questioning over a variety of alleged crimes, including misuse of public funds and abuse of power. Al-Emadi had held his position since 2013 and was widely perceived to be one of the most effective finance ministers in the Gulf. Within a day, he was stripped of all governmental duties, as well as his roles in other publicly owned companies and financial institutions. Moreover, the anti-corruption probe is reportedly widening, with scores of businessmen and government officials being questioned by law enforcement authorities and financial regulators.
The publicity surrounding al-Emadi’s ouster is unusual. Throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, most high-level cases of corruption or official malfeasance are handled quietly and without ceremony. The officials involved typically resign or leave their posts suddenly, with limited media coverage. Rumors swirl but are rarely confirmed, and investigations almost never result in prosecution, fines, or imprisonment. Kuwait, for example, witnessed a number of high-profile corruption allegations that led the prime minister to leave office in 2011 and the cabinet to resign en masse in 2019, yet no prosecutions followed. In the United Arab Emirates, a corruption probe resulted in the late Mohammed Khalfan bin Kharbash, the Minister of State for Finance, being removed from office in 2008 and charged with embezzlement in 2009. However, he pleaded not guilty, and the case never went to trial.
There is one major, and controversial, exception to this rule: the November 2017 arrest and imprisonment of 400 prominent Saudis in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Supporters of this decision, including many Saudi citizens, maintain that the imprisonment of these individuals was well deserved and long overdue. Critics allege that it had more to do with the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman than with the actual guilt or innocence of those charged; they also claim that the funds recouped came from an effort that resembled a “shakedown” more than a bona fide attempt to recover stolen assets or enforce the rule of law.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ritz Carlton arrests, some observers maintained that the move would be disruptive and create uncertainty, scaring investors away. Others argued that it would signal a seriousness of intent and purpose that would be beneficial to the country in the long-term. The short-term effects of the arrests were indeed disruptive: foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia fell precipitously in 2017 before rebounding in 2018 and 2019, albeit to lower levels than before. The long-term effects of the decision remain to be seen, although there is a wealth of evidence that countries with lower levels of corruption are better at attracting investment and have higher levels of economic growth over time. It would not be surprising if other countries conducting public crackdowns on corruption followed a similar trajectory to that of Saudi Arabia—an initial drop in foreign investment due to added uncertainty, followed by increased investment downstream if the effort is viewed as serious and credible.
According to Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region “is still perceived as highly corrupt, with little progress made towards controlling corruption.” The reality is more nuanced, with wide variation in performance across the region. For instance, the U.A.E. and Qatar are ranked 21st and 30th, respectively, by the Corruption Perceptions Index—a position placing them ahead of countries including Spain, South Korea, and Portugal. The bulk of MENA countries fall in the mid-range. There is also a significant cluster of countries in the lowest ranks, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which are perceived to be among the most corrupt countries in the world.
Two elements of the region’s anticorruption efforts are particularly worrying, even with regard to regional leaders such as the U.A.E. and Qatar. The first, as the International Monetary Fund and others have noted, is the delayed progress on “next generation” governance reforms, which stretch beyond eliminating petty corruption and improving the quality of service delivery. This agenda involves thinking more carefully about the boundary between the public and private sectors; improving transparency and public accountability; making regulatory processes more streamlined and predictable; and strengthening the independence of agencies charged with investigating and prosecuting corruption. It also involves moving forward legislation on income and asset disclosure, as well as cracking down on money laundering.
The second troubling feature of MENA anti-corruption efforts is the relatively static nature of the region’s performance over time. According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, the region’s composite scores for controlling corruption have actually fallen consistently from their peak in 2002. The persistence of these chronic “governance deficits” has been viewed by many as the root cause for the region’s repeated political crises over the past decade, starting with the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 and continuing through to the protest movements of 2018-19 in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan. In all of these countries, concerns about corruption were among the most prominent public grievances.
Could it be that Qatar’s recent move heralds a transition toward new and more serious anticorruption efforts in the Gulf and wider region? And could the country’s public efforts inspire other MENA governments to do better? In response to queries about the arrest warrant for al-Emadi, the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs underscored the importance of institutions and noted emphatically that “no one is above the law.” A day prior to the finance minister’s arrest, Qatar’s emir abolished immunity from prosecution for public officials, leveling the legal playing field for all. Such steps, if translated directly into a robust governance reform agenda and taken forward with skill and tenacity, could very well open a new chapter in strengthening the rule of law and building effective and equitable state institutions in both Qatar and the wider MENA region.