Will Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain see regime change as neighboring Tunisia and Egypt have? Historic unrest and political upheaval are reshaping the landscape and defying the best guesses of external observers as to what will happen in the Arab world next. What is clear is the role corruption and illicit financial practices have played in bringing these countries to the brink of revolution – and in some cases beyond.
The magnitude of these illicit practices is staggering—Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that corruption and crime removed a cumulative $49.5 billion from Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen from 2000-2008. Put into context, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen’s combined GDP is $111.4 billion – which means that roughly half of these countries’ economies disappeared and was sent abroad.
The effect of this loss of billions of dollars may be seen in the incongruence between strong economic growth and a stagnantly low quality of life. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it, “While a growing number of Arabs live in poverty, crowded into slums without sanitation, safe water, reliable electricity, a small elite has increasingly concentrated control of the region’s land and wealth.”
But democracy is not the cure for corruption. Democracy is the second step – impossible until the corruption is dealt with. Corruption provides the money that is the lifeblood of power in these countries. With the billions they have stashed in shadowy locations abroad, leaders can buy loyal armies and fortify their political position. Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are all in the midst of violent crackdowns orchestrated by security and intelligence services, resulting in protestors being arrested, tortured, killed, or wounded.
In Syria, Iran is rumored to be assisting security and intelligence services, which have arrested, tortured, and killed protestors in their bid to stamp out any uprising. In Bahrain, the Saudi Arabian army arrived on the invitation of the government to suppress protests, including arresting doctors and nurses that provide assistance to wounded protesters that arrived at their hospitals. No place is safe for protestors.
Corruption buys security for those in charge – at the cost of billions of dollars enriching a tiny percentage of the population while citizens live in poverty and squalor, unable to afford basic necessities.
If anything is to be done – if the Syrians, the Yemenis, and the Bahrainis are serious about alleviating the desperate conditions in their countries – countering corruption must be the very first step. Otherwise, the promise of change in the Arab world will, as Secretary Clinton warned, prove to be a “mirage in the desert.”
Disclaimer: Unless specifically stated to be the views of the Task Force, the opinions expressed on this blog are solely the opinions of the individual blogger and are not necessarily those of the Task Force on Financial Integrity & Economic Development.