Anticorruption in Qatar: Policy or Politics?

Earlier this year, Qatar’s Minister of Finance, Ali Shareef Al Emadi, was arrested on corruption charges. This news came as a veritable bombshell to those who follow the Arab Gulf region. For one thing, Al Emadi is a prominent figure, who was not only the sitting finance minister, but who had previously occupied an impressive list of leadership positions in well-known Qatari institutions, including a board position on the country’s $300 billion sovereign wealth fund, chairman of the board of Qatar Airways, and chairman of the board of Qatar National Bank, the largest lender in the Middle East. Another surprising thing about Al Emadi’s arrest is just how public—and unusually publicized—the arrest was. This contrasts strikingly with how Qatar and other countries in the region typically deal with suspected corruption of high-level officials. In such cases, the investigation is usually kept private and, if the allegations appear to have substance, they are usually resolved through a resignation. In Al Emadi’s case, by contrast, a state-run news agency made a public announcement of the arrest and investigation, and he was removed from his post. 

It has been over six months since Al Emadi’s arrest, and the situation remains shrouded in mystery. Al Emadi has said nothing, and the only statement from the Qatari government came two days after the arrest. (That statement, by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, consisted mainly of the assertions that “no one is above the law” and the “investigation is ongoing.”) This has left news organizations and researchers to speculate about the unusual circumstances of Al Emadi’s arrest (see hereherehere, and here). One possible interpretation, advanced in a Brookings Institution piece published shortly after the arrest, is that Qatar’s unusual action in the Al Emadi case—publicly announcing the arrest of a high-profile figure in a country (and region) where such officials are virtually never prosecuted for corruption—may signal a real shift in Qatar’s policy, one that may be part of a genuine push for better, more honest governance. A former economist at Qatar’s central bank expressed a similarly optimistic interpretation, asserting that the arrest “sends a powerful message to all Qataris about the government’s newfound eagerness to fight corruption.” 

This is of course possible, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Al Emadi’s arrest, and the unusual publicity it received, may have less to do with a real shift in the Qatari government’s approach to fighting corruption, and more to do with political calculations.

There are a couple of reasons to be skeptical of claims that Al Emadi’s arrest is a signal that Qatar’s government is now more committed to fighting high-level corruption than it had been previously:

  • First, if Qatar’s government really did have a “newfound eagerness to fight corruption,” we might expect the government to be undertaking significant actions to address longstanding concerns about systemic corruption in the public procurement and the natural resources sectors. But the government has done little on this front. While no reasonable person can expect a country to make vast changes overnight, a government genuinely committed to advancing a serious anticorruption agenda would have taken some meaningful action to address the highest-risk, most problematic sectors. In the absence of such action, the arrest of one high-profile minister does not really signal a significant change in the government’s priorities when it comes to fighting corruption. 
  • Second, although Al Emadi’s arrest was quite public, the subsequent investigation has not been. While of course we wouldn’t expect the government to divulge details of an ongoing investigation, the extent to which the investigation has been shrouded in secrecy is notable. Even when the government permanently replaced Al Emadi with Ali Al Kuwari last month, there was not a word about Al Emadi or any ongoing investigation or pending charges. This suggests that, while the government was happy to publicize the arrest at the time, the government would now prefer that everyone just move on. 

If Qatar’s arrest of Al Emadi doesn’t look like a genuine shift in anticorruption policy, what could it be? There are at least two political explanations—one international, one domestic—for why Qatar decided to arrest Al Emadi on corruption charges in such a public fashion.

  • With respect to international relations, it is possible that Qatar’s public ouster of Al Emadi on corruption charges was an attempt to improve the country’s image, particularly with the United States. The Biden Administration is expected to emphasize issues like human rights (where Qatar’s record is poor) and anticorruption. In that context, Qatar’s public arrest of Al Emadi may have been less about a genuine change in policy and priorities and more of an effort to appeal to the new U.S. administration by demonstrating that the country was, for the first time ever, holding a high-level official accountable for corruption. That interpretation would be consistent with other actions that Qatar has taken recently, such as its close cooperation with the United States on evacuation and relocation efforts tied to Afghanistan, the decision to hold long-delayed Shura Council elections earlier this fall, and the appointment by the Emir of two women to the Council—a first for the country—despite the fact that no woman candidate prevailed in the popular election. So, at least some of the reason for Qatar’s arrest of Al Emadi could be tied to broader efforts to improve its image abroad and seek closer relations with the United States.
  • Domestic political calculations may also have played a rule in Al Emadi’s highly public arrest. The Emir and the rest of Qatar’s ruling family may well have viewed Al Emadi (and his tribe) as a political threat. Al Emadi, after all, held considerable power and influence as finance minister and as a member of the boards of many of the country’s longstanding and visible institutions. His tribe holds vast financial power too. As of 2017, members of the Al Emadi tribe occupied more board seats of Qatar Exchange-listed companies than any tribe other than the ruling Al Thani tribe. Given Al Emadi’s reputation for competence (he was named “Finance Minister of the Year” for the Middle East in 2020 by The Banker magazine), it may have been politically difficult for the Emir to simply remove him in a cabinet reshuffle, but ousting Al Emadi for corruption may have added a veneer of legitimacy to the elimination of a potential rival. It is also notable, in this regard, that Al Emadi’s replacement as finance minister, Ali Al Kuwari, is a member of a tribe knowns for its loyalty to the ruling family. 

So, while we might hope that Al Emadi’s arrest in fact signals a new and more serious commitment by Qatar’s government to fight high-level corruption, this move may have more to do with domestic and international political calculations. The political use of ostensible anticorruption efforts would hardly be unprecedented in the region. After all, Saudi Arabia’s corruption crackdowns in 2017 raised similar suspicions. While it is too soon to know for sure what Al Emadi’s arrest portends, the anticorruption community should hold its applause for now. The government’s implementation of serious anticorruption reform measures—including robust implementing legislation with respect to the UN Convention Against Corruption—will be a much stronger signal of a real policy shift than the arrest of one man.

3 thoughts on “Anticorruption in Qatar: Policy or Politics?

  1. Very interesting post. I’m certain that it’s hard to judge from the outside, especially with all of the secrecy, but if the arrest was for the second option (the elimination of a political rival) do we have any indication whether the corruption charges are legitimate at all, or whether this is simply the Emir weaponizing anticorruption laws for personal gain?

  2. Josh, thanks for another fascinating post. I agree that, more likely than not, this is an example of a country weaponizing anticorruption for political purposes (regardless of whether the charges are legitimate). Looking at the Corruption Perception Index, Qatar does better than Spain and Israel, though not quite as well as the UAE. Though I don’t entirely trust the CPI and wonder about a metric that gives a country a relatively clean bill of health despite the weaponization of corruption for political purposes, I have to ask whether a chage in Qatari anti-corruption strategy is even necessary? More interestingly, perhaps, what would a genuine shift in Qatari anti-corruption policy look like (would it just be about making investigations more public, or would it involve more prosecutions / stronger rules and regulations)?

  3. This is a really interesting post, Josh.

    As Justin mentioned Qatar is well-placed in the CPI ranking (number 30). A recent and very complete report from Transparency International (https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24898?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents) points out that Qatar has comparatively low levels of corruption by regional standards and that the country has recently enacted important legislation on public procurement and anti-money laundering.

    The next FIFA World Cup is going to happen in Qatar, what might have raised global attention to Qatar. It would be a propitious moment to convey a message to the world that Qatar is prioritizing anticorruption policies. What do you think about that?

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