View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

UAE’s Record on Corruption and the Quest for Transparency

There have been two important reports and statements issued in recent days and they are inextricably interconnected—the 2007 Corruptions Perception Index and the decree not to imprison UAE journalists.

Transparency International released on 26 September 2007 its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for countries around the world and it makes for grim reading.

First released in 1995 as part of the global coalition against corruption, CPI ranks more than 150 countries in terms of perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.

The scores range between 10 (highly clean) and 0 (highly corrupt). Top of the list this year are New Zealand, Denmark and Finland (all 9.4) and bottom are Iraq (1.5), Somalia and Myanmar (both 1.4).

Duraid Al Baik in his Gulf News article (30 September 2007) entitled, ‘Fighting Corruption in the Region’, related the report to the Middle East saying:

“[It] paints a bleak picture of the level of corruption in the Arab world. Corruption levels increased in almost all Arab countries according to the index.”

Eight Arab countries out of twenty-one were listed among the top 60 failed states in the world in terms of corruption levels—Sudan (which ranked 172nd), Iraq (178), Somalia (179), Yemen (131), Lebanon (101), Egypt (110), Syria (142) and Mauritania (128).

As for the UAE and its neighbors, Qatar led the way (32nd position), followed by the UAE (36), Bahrain (48), Oman (53), Kuwait (60) and Saudi Arabia (83).

There are many implications that can be drawn from this report but here are two of the most important:

There is a strong correlation between corruption and poverty. The movements to make poverty history are essentially fights against corruption.

The ‘deeply troubled’ nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia and the Sudan remain at the bottom of the index. When countries and their services are crippled by war, government officials and other leaders quickly resort to corruption.

The ruler of Dubai, who is also UAE Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, declared on 25 September that UAE journalists will not be jailed days after two Dubai journalists were sentenced to prison for libel.

This decision to decriminalize the UAE media law has been greeted warmly by journalists and is a move in the right direction. Subsequent reports noted that there were other disciplinary measures available, which were comments that reminded writers that the spirit of freedom had limits. While some commentators were swift to say that journalists should not now view themselves as being above the law, others like the ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al Sharqi, urged a gathering of journalists to report with “objectivity and transparency” for the benefit of society.

Notice has already been given amid these decrees that there is great urgency in updating and transforming the publication law of the UAE.

Currently the UAE publishing law does not allow the public criticism of officials and leaders. It is at this point that the new move towards freedom of expression and transparency hits a road block. Leaders in all spheres of society should not be above the law. Until journalists and writers are free from threat and punishment to probe corruption and challenge unjust practices there will never be genuine freedom of expression. This does not mean that journalists must be given a license to slander character but it means writing with respect for people and their character.

As part of the strategy for removing corruption and making significant progress up the international transparency ladder, decisions must be made to foster a climate of trust and actively encourage journalists and writers to tackle and confront corrupt practices and leadership, even at the highest level.

A related difficulty exists when mainstream publishing is owned and controlled by the government. In this circumstance it is extremely hard to be constructively critical of those who ultimately appoint you.

The move towards greater freedom of expression has a long history on the Arabian Peninsula. For hundreds of years this land has spawned a rich prophetic tradition of teachers, poets and sages, whose courageous voices have frequently said to nations and to their leaders, “With all respect, what you are doing is wrong.” Such voices that speak the truth to power must be nurtured and welcomed.

Geoff Pound

Image: Transparency International logo.