x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Battle against corruption starts at the top

The wave of change flowing from the Arab Spring offers a chance to sweep away much of the corruption that plagues the region.

People involved in bribery and other corrupt practices are not inclined to talk about it. So the measurement of corruption, in business and government around the world, is done mainly by "perception indexing" - people are asked how common they find corruption to be.

The latest such numbers for the Middle East and North Africa region (Mena) are distressing: fully two-thirds of Mena business executives say backhanders are often used, according to a new study reported by The National this week. And 20 per cent say it's impossible to do business without using such illicit techniques.

There is, however, good reason for hope. The rapid changes across the Mena region are bringing in new leaders in some of the worst-afflicted countries, and since the battle against entrenched corruption must begin with political will at the top, there is now a chance for real change.

Levels of perceived integrity vary sharply across the region. Last year's Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by the respected Transparency International, ranked Qatar 22nd least-corrupt worldwide, Mena's best showing. The UAE (28th) was ahead of Spain, Israel and Portugal, and well ahead of other regional states. Saudi Arabia ranked 57th, Egypt was 112th, Iran 120th, Syria 129th. Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan were worse still - respectively 164th, 175th, and 180th of the 183 jurisdictions rated.

New Zealand was deemed the world's cleanest country; Somalia and North Korea the worst. It is no coincidence that corruption is generally worst in the poorest countries; graft scares away investment and aid.

Still, no country is safe from the insidious reach of improper practices. And where economies are moribund, impoverished governments can be tempted to provide numerous low-paid public-sector jobs, giving new functionaries de facto licences to steal.

There is however a better way, though it demands steely political determination at the top: remove import restrictions and other "crony capitalism" brakes on the economy, find a nucleus of honest ministers and judges and investigators, open government records, encourage whistle-blowers, begin prosecutions - and watch the improvement cascade downwards.

To be sure, this is easier to say than to do. But the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, of 2005, offers a route map to any country that wants it. And since corruption was a spark of last year's Arab revolutions, new and reforming regimes have every incentive to start cleaning up.