Friday, December 15, 2006

Double Standards in Riyadh and Damascus

In arms deals, it is normal for suppliers to inflate their prices in order to pay commissions to intermediaries. The intermediaries then share the commissions with government officials who have signed the contracts. In diplomatic language, a bribe is called "excess commission".

The British-Saudi deal which was signed last August for the supply and maintenance of 72 Typhoon Euro jets, is worth £40 billion over 25 years. The price of each jet fighter was apparently inflated by 32% to pay "excess commissions" to intermediaries and the Saudi Royal family. The Saudi government sees nothing morally wrong with this arrangement. It has threatened to cancel the contract if the British authorities persisted with their fraud investigations into an earlier arms deal with the Saudi government (the £43 billion Al Yamamah contract signed in 1985). The British seem today to have dropped the investigation in the interest of "national security".

Let us not beat about the bush. Some Saudi royals are corrupt in the sense that they abuse their public office (or more generally public trust) for private gain. There is nothing new in this and corruption is rampant in Arab countries and elsewhere in the developing world. The size of the bribe may be spectacular in this case but the same moral principle applies to a one dollar bribe.

One might blame the West for indirectly encouraging Arab corruption and destabilising the region, so they can buy cheap oil from it and supply unnecessary expensive arms to it. Perhaps there is an element of truth in this but it is the Arab moral double-standards that leave the door wide open for others to take advantage. Women are respected as mothers and teachers but abused as daughters, sisters, wives and citizens. Petty thieves have their hands cut off while government officials syphon off public funds on a massive scale. The Saudi Moral Police imprison people for leaving a shop open during afternoon prayers while the princes import prostitutes and alcohol by the plane loads into their palaces. I do not intend to preach morality to Saudi Arabia but, unfortunately, some Saudi royals have been setting dubious ethical standards for other Arab rulers for over 80 years.

On this blog, I am supposed to focus on Syria, but Syria is at the heart of the Arab world. After independence, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Syria upheld fairly high standards in public life. People for example used to joke about the legendry corruption of Egyptian officials and feared that the union with Egypt would compromise the hopelessly inefficient but reasonably clean Syrian bureaucracy at the time. How times have changed! Now our Egyptian bretheren are trying to put their house in order while Syrians struggle with endemic corruption and moral double standards at every level in society. This is what usually happens when nations allow their rulers to abuse their office, undermine the development of state and social institutions and repress the media.

Syrian governments have never lacked able technocrats who can talk to the press, or good bureaucrats who can interract with the public. But the balance of power has, over recent decades, shifted gradually towards a less professional, less ethical and less enlightened generation of unaccountable officials who are loyal to the regime. They have spread corruption and caused immense damage to the integrity of Syria's civil service, society's moral fabric and the country's reputation abroad. Any trust or real affinity between the public and government that might have exisited in previous decades has now almost completely disappeared. The government basks in its own praise and glory while the public sleep-walk into their daily lives totally oblivious to those in power.

Fraud and double standards in public life have driven a wedge between government and the people. This makes any effort to reform institutions and fight corruption difficult and ineffective. Reform by dictat never works and people cannot be expected to implement orders handed down by rulers who lack legitimacy and visibly practise double standards.

The crises which have engulfed the Middle East since July this year should not be allowed to obscure the moral rot that continues to penetrate deep into Syria's soul.

No comments: