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Fighting Corruption in the Arab World Should Be a U.S. Priority
by Imad K. Harb
In June of 2021, the Biden administration announced that it would be establishing the fight against corruption as a core concept in US national security and a pillar of its foreign policy.1 The following December, it launched the “US Strategy on Countering Corruption” as a “whole-of- government” initiative to, among other objectives, curb illicit financing, hold corrupt actors accountable, and improve diplomatic engagement and leverage foreign assistance in the pursuit of its policy goals.2 With the United States the premier actor in international politics and influence, the administration set out to formulate strategies, lay down markers, and implement policies that can help at least make a dent in the scourge of corruption around the world.
Today, the task of fighting international corruption must include the countries of the Arab world, most of which are close political, economic, and strategic partners of the United States. Corruption in the region is eroding what little is left of social and political stability. From bribery to influence peddling, and from the use of public and official power for private gain to interference with the judiciary, the region’s corruption requires diligent internal and international efforts to address it. Democracy and economic development depend first on the striving of the region’s populations to ensure and protect their human rights, but also on an active role played by the United States government and its many institutions.
The Scale of the Problem of Corruption
In its latest Corruption Perception Index report,3 Transparency International (TI) found that on a scale of 1 to 100—with 100 measuring the least corrupt country—only the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman scored above 50. The rest of the countries in the Arab world (Palestine is not listed in the report), scored 49 or below, with Somalia and Syria being the worst. The following table lists all 21 countries’ scores:
It is this poor record that explains, at least partly, the anemic development of democracy and democratic institutions in the Arab world. Those with access to resources and power use whatever means necessary to remain dominant actors in their societies and economies, to the detriment of hundreds of millions of the region’s citizens. As the TI report explicates, “In the Middle East and North Africa, the interests of a powerful few continue to dominate the political and private sphere, and the limitations placed on civil and political freedoms are blocking any significant progress.”4
In Tunisia, following a period of elite disagreement on how to proceed on the country’s democratic path, President Kais Saied corruptly used his presidential powers to shut down parliament, stifle the judiciary, curb press and other freedoms, and actually write a new constitution. As a result, Tunisian democracy has for all intents and purposes collapsed in favor of one-man rule.5
In Lebanon, a Ponzi scheme begun following the end of the civil war in 1990 and involving politicians and governments, banks, and the central bank has led to the country’s political, economic, and social collapse.6 While political elites struggle to find necessary compromises, the economy has tanked, and poverty has reached unprecedented levels.7
In Iraq, corruption has reached deep into the country’s administration and power-sharing system.8 It has also reached into the security sector which, according to a US Defense Department report, includes “pay-to-play schemes, nepotism, bribery, pursuing personal vendettas, and infighting within and among services and ministries.”9
In Jordan, which suffers from difficult economic conditions and the burden of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, corruption is threatening social peace and political stability in one of the United States’ pivotal partners.10 In Egypt, with a CPI of 33, the military’s large stake in the country’s economy has allowed it to become “an autonomous actor that can reshape markets and influence government policy and investment strategies.”11 In its attempt to compensate for its lack of hydrocarbon deposits, the Emirate of Dubai—led by UAE Vice President Mohammed Al Maktoum—has become a hub for money laundering and illegal financial transactions.12
Corruption has helped build and perpetuate a culture of elite impunity and erodes citizens’ confidence in their governments’ performance. A 2019-2020 public opinion survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in 13 Arab countries revealed that 78 percent of Arab citizens believe that corruption is either prevalent or somewhat widespread in their countries, both in the public and private sectors. Only 7 percent denied its prevalence. The survey also showed that faith in government effectiveness and governance is low, especially in representative institutions.13
What the United States Can Do
Although the United States has no magic wand to address the scourge of corruption in the Arab world, it is not without influence. Washington is not primarily responsible for ridding the region of corrupt practices; that task should first and foremost fall to the people who suffer from those practices and their detrimental effects.
The United States can support those efforts by cooperating with civil society organizations committed to the fight against corruption in the region.
As corrupt state power continues to be used to limit these organizations’ work and their freedom to monitor and investigate malfeasance, however, the US must use its influence and power in other channels as well.
First, however, the United States must act domestically to heal itself. The fact that officials from former administrations have used their knowledge of American-Arab relations, connections they built with Arab officials while in office, and the US bureaucracy to curry favor with current elites in the Arab world harms the ability of the US to fight corruption abroad.14 Such loopholes must be closed so that the transition from officialdom does not become a rotating door for private gain at the expense of US foreign policy goals. The US government must also refrain from sacrificing its desire to fight corruption because of its grand national security interests in ties to unsavory Arab regimes.
For example, a number of US administrations have applied the congressional Leahy Law,15 which deals with violators of human rights, only to go back to business as usual with these regimes. Recently, the Biden administration released funds to Egypt that had been withheld pursuant to that law. It subsequently approved military sales worth $2.5 billion to that country, after supposedly finding that Cairo had demonstrated positive changes in its human rights conditions, and despite objections from many members of Congress.16 The Biden administration is no different from the Obama and Trump administrations in this regard. In 2015, President Barack Obama restored Egypt’s entire military aid after suspending it following a crackdown on protests in 2013 and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators who were rejecting the military coup led by today’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.17 In 2018, the Trump administration restored $195 million to Egypt that was withheld from the previous year’s annual aid package, also as a result of the administration’s determination that Egypt had made progress on human rights.18
One way in which the US tackles the problem of corruption is through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs,19 using diplomacy, funding for civil society organizations, and capacity building in targeted countries. To help reduce resistance to what will be considered interference in the internal affairs of Arab states, the United States must be prepared to utilize its influence and prestige to convince Arab regimes to allow for the development of independent anti-corruption institutions. Arab regimes must also understand the efficacy of at least appearing to accept American advice in this regard. This can carry weight among Arab citizens who consider corruption to be rampant in their societies and desire a concerted effort to defeat it.
The US must also use coercive diplomacy to convince Arab regimes of the necessity of the task. First, the United States should be prepared, and threaten, to pare down its security assistance to many Arab regimes if they don’t act decisively against corruption. The Leahy Law can be a starting point, but given the US willingness to lift the restrictions on countries such as Egypt, will be of limited impact. In fact, considering the US objective of defending democracy and human rights around the world as declared in the Biden administration’s latest National Security Strategy,20 all military assistance to Egypt must be suspended until Egypt delivers real change on this front. The same can be said of US policy toward Tunisia, where political corruption has led to a quick and dangerous slide toward authoritarianism. Despite close US-Tunisian political and military relations, the Biden administration still seems unable to convince President Kais Saied to rescind his autocratic moves that are considered to be the greatest threat to stability and democracy in the country.21
It Is Not Easy
Considering the endemic nature of political and economic corruption in the Arab world, the United States should not expect easy sailing in its mission to help end malfeasance there. The Egyptian government’s closing down of 17 nongovernmental organizations and the jail sentences against scores of Egyptians and Americans in 201322 will always be a sobering reminder of the difficulties in influencing Arab governments on this and other scores. But if the United States is sincere about its role as a leader in protecting democracy and human rights and helping to promote good governance, it must use its diplomacy to change corrupt political and economic practices in the Arab world. Only by doing this will the United States ensure the peace and stability that are essential for security abroad and at home.
1 The White House, “Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core United States National Security Interest,” June 3, 2021, at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/06/03/memorandum-on-establishing-the-fight-against-corruption-as-a-core-united-states-national-security-interest/
2 The White House, “United States Strategy on Countering Corruption,” December 2021, at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/United-States-Strategy-on-Countering-Corruption.pdf
3 Corruption Perception Index 2021, Transparency International, n.d., at https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021.
5 Simon Speakman Cordall, “Democracy Fades in the Arab Spring’s Success Story,” Foreign Policy, August 4, 2022, at https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/08/04/tunisia-kais-saied-democracy-arab-spring-success-story/
6 The World Bank, “Lebanon Public Finance Review: Ponzi Finance?”, Washington, DC, August 2, 2022, at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/37824. Press release, August 2, 2022, at https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/08/02/lebanon-s-ponzi-finance-scheme-has-caused-unprecedented-social-and-economic-pain-to-the-lebanese-people
7 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Lebanon: UN expert warns of ‘failing state’ amid widespread poverty,” May 11, 2022, at https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/05/lebanon-un-expert-warns-failing-state-amid-widespread-poverty
8 Mina Aldroubi, ”Iraq government watchdog says nearly 12,000 officials investigated over corruption,” February 16, 2022, at https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2022/02/16/iraq-government-watchdog-says-nearly-12000-officials-involved-in-corruption/
9 Shelly Kittleson, “Despite government efforts, corruption still threatens Iraqis,” Al-Monitor, March 9, 2022, at https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/03/despite-government-efforts-corruption-still-threatens-iraqis
10 Karin Laub, “Jordanians eye bleak future as economic woes, corruption and repression mount,” Times of Israel, October 15, 2021, at https://www.timesofisrael.com/jordanians-eye-bleak-future-as-economic-woes-corruption-and-repression-mount/
11 Yezid Sayegh, “Owners of the Republic: An Anatomy of Egypt’s military Economy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 18, 2019, at https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/11/18/owners-of-republic-anatomy-of-egypt-s-military-economy-pub-80325
12 Matthew T. Page and Jodi Vittori, “Dubai’s Role in Facilitating Corruption and Global Illicit Financial Flows,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 7, 2020, at https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/07/dubai-s-role-in-facilitating-corruption-and-global-illicit-financial-flows-pub-82180
13 Arab Center Washington DC, “The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index: Main Results in Brief,’ November 16, 2020, at https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-2019-2020-arab-opinion-index-main-results-in-brief/#section2
14 Frank Vogl, “The Grave Risks of Western Complicity with Corrupt Arab Autocrats,” Democracy in the Arab World Now, May 5, 2022, at https://dawnmena.org/the-grave-risks-of-western-complicity-with-corrupt-arab-autocrats/
15 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, US Department of State, “About the Leahy Law,” Fact Sheet, January 20, 2021, at https://www.state.gov/key-topics-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/human-rights/leahy-law-fact-sheet/
16 Edward Wong and Vivian Yee, “U.S. to Move Forward on Military Aid to Egypt Despite Lawmakers’ Concerns,” The New York Times, September 14, 2022, at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/14/us/politics/egypt-military-aid-biden.html
17 Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed, “Obama ends freeze on U.S. ,military aid to Egypt,” Reuters, March 31, 2015, at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-egypt-military/obama-ends-freeze-on-u-s-military-aid-to-egypt-idUSKBN0MR2GR20150401
18 Declan Walsh, “Despite Egypt’s Dismal Human Rights Record, U.S. Restores Military Aid,” The New York Times, July 26, 2018, at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-egypt-military/obama-ends-freeze-on-u-s-military-aid-to-egypt-idUSKBN0MR2GR20150401
19 “Combating Corruption and Promoting Good Governance,” Department of State, at https://www.state.gov/combating-corruption-and-promoting-good-governance/
20 The White House, “Fact Sheet: The Biden-Harris Administration’s National Security Strategy,” October 12, 2022, at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/10/12/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-administrations-national-security-strategy/
21 Missy Ryan, “U.S. presses Tunisia, once a bright spot of Arab Spring, on democracy,” September 19, 2022, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/09/19/united-states-tunisia-democracy/
22 Louisa Loveluck, “Egypt convicts US NGO workers,” The Guardian, June 4, 2013, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/04/egypt-convicts-us-ngo-workers-sam-lahood
Imad K. Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.