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.

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Some Encouraging Signs from the Recent White House Statement on Global Anticorruption

A couple of weeks ago, the White House published a “Fact Sheet” on the U.S. Global Anticorruption Agenda. Though I don’t normally ascribe all that much importance to documents like this — they’re mostly for PR, after all — there were a few things about this particular release that caught my eye, and that I found fairly encouraging.

Perhaps most notably, although the release includes some obligatory–and deservedly self-congratulatory–discussion of the U.S. leadership role in enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and pushing for stronger enforcement of anti-bribery laws through the OECD Convention, most of the Fact Sheet focuses on what many in the anticorruption community have emphasized as important, cutting-edge issues that go beyond traditional anti-bribery law, including:

  • Asset recovery and anti-money laundering as a top priority (including the recognition of the need to close loopholes in U.S. law and strengthen international cooperation in this area);
  • Closely related to this, the Fact Sheet emphasizes the importance of preventing the abuse of anonymous shell companies–including a discussion of recent regulatory initiatives on this front that we’ve noted elsewhere on this blog.
  • A special focus on the extractive sector
  • Emphasizing the importance of engagement and cooperation with the private sector, in particular the announcement of an intention to develop a “National Action Plan to promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.”

Of course, concrete action matters more than high-minded general statements, and I know many in the anticorruption activist community have reasonable concerns about whether the U.S. is prepared to do what it takes to make good on these pledges. Still, one must give credit where credit is due–not only to the U.S. government, but to the civil society activists and others that have succeeded in changing the conversation about global anticorruption in ways that are reflected by the White House document.

One other quick thing to note about the Fact Sheet: At one point it declares that the U.S. government “will hold responsible governments that tolerate or commit corrupt practices in contravention of international norms, including by adjusting our bilateral relations and advising our businesses and investors accordingly.” It’s not clear what, exactly, this means. Maybe it means nothing significant. But if the U.S. is serious about “adjusting [its] bilateral relations” with countries that tolerate or contravene international anticorruption norms, that might actually represent a significant departure from past practice. After all, though the U.S. routinely condemns corruption, I’m not aware of any cases in which another country’s failure to adhere to anticorruption norms has had broader collateral consequences for U.S. foreign policy toward that country. Again, maybe this doesn’t really mean much–what does “adjusting” relations mean, anyway?–but it would be interesting to see whether the U.S. (or perhaps some in the U.S. who had a hand in drafting the Fact Sheet’s language) want corruption concerns to start to play a role perhaps more similar to concerns related to human rights abuses.