x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Kuwait MPs want their wealth revealed amid corruption allegations

Allegations of corruption escalated when diplomatic cables published on WikiLeaks suggested parliamentary candidates used government money or their personal wealth to buy votes in a general election.

KUWAIT CITY // Eleven Kuwaiti parliamentarians signed a petition this week urging the central bank to reveal details of their accounts in a bid to counter allegations of widespread corruption.

The petition comes after Al Qabas newspaper last month reported, quoting anonymous sources, that 25 million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh335m) had been deposited into the bank accounts of two unnamed members of parliament.

Allegations of corruption escalated when diplomatic cables published on WikiLeaks suggested parliamentary candidates - including the current speaker of the house - used government money or their personal wealth to buy votes in a general election.

There has been "a lot of talk" of corruption, said Mohammed Al Mutair, the MP who launched the petition. He added that the document, which has been verified by lawyers, gives the central bank the authority to check for "any wrongdoing" in the bank accounts of the signatories and their close relatives, both in Kuwait and overseas.

By "revealing our accounts" members of parliament can prove that "we don't have anything to hide", Mr Al Mutair said.

But Nasser Al Abdali, the head of the Kuwaiti Society for Developing Democracy, a non-governmental organisation that pushes for transparency, called the petition "a show".

He said that even with permission, the central bank cannot legally reveal details of accounts, adding that politicians can hide their financial dealings by channelling money through undeclared foreign assets or friends.

Mr Al Abdali said unlike France or Britain, where elected representatives lock horns over political ideologies, in Kuwait politicians "are fighting to get more money from the government".

"Politics in Kuwait is not very deep," he added.

Kuwait's National Assembly consists of 50 elected MPs - members of small Islamist, liberal or populist political groups and independents - and a cabinet chosen by the royal family. To pass legislation, the royals must secure the backing of a large portion of the house.

One of the documents published by WikiLeaks alleges that a former US ambassador to Kuwait visited the engineering office of a defeated Islamist parliamentary candidate, Mubarak Al Duwailah, after a general election in 2003.

The candidate said the Kuwaiti government allocated 500,000 dinars to Daifallah Buramia and Mohammed Al Faji, the constituency's successful pro-government candidates, "for use in buying votes to ensure Duwailah was not returned to office", the cable says.

In another cable dated 2006 - another election year - a section entitled "Kharafi's pocket change" recites a "trustworthy story" relayed to a US embassy official during a conversation with a "high ranking contact at the central bank".

The contact said Jassem Al Kharafi, the current speaker of parliament, had withdrawn 6m dinars in the previous couple of weeks for election expenses. The author added: "The contact believed with absolute certainty that this money would be used to buy votes."

Mr Al Kharafi told the state news agency, Kuna, this week: "This report is baseless and contained fabricated information intended to spread rumours and discord".

The speaker called on the US State Department to check the credibility of its sources "and not depend on rumours and hearsay".

For many Kuwaitis, the reports are confirmation of practices they believe are rife.

Mr Al Abdali said many parliamentarians are supported by powerful individuals, including royals, and others use their personal wealth to secure votes. Some MPs use their influence, known as wasta, to secure jobs or medical treatment overseas for constituents in return for votes, he added.

"It's difficult to find somebody not corrupt" he said, estimating that only "three or four" of the country's 50 MPs are untainted.

Parliament is currently in its summer recess but some MPs are pushing for a special session to discuss the huge bank deposits and proposed anti-corruption laws on September 22.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae