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10 December 2023

Saudi public sector hit by corruption

By Nadim Kawach

Saudi Arabia’s government offices are suffering from low performance because of bribe and other corruption practices and this is putting pressure on the Gulf country’s coffers, its state auditing watchdog has said.

The recent flood disaster that hit the Western Red Sea port of Jeddah exposed such flaws in government departments, which are also suffering from the absence of clear policies, the General Auditing Bureau (GAB) said.

In a paper presented at a government performance seminar held in Riyadh this week, the GAB said the public sector’s efficiency has remained below the required level despite the massive budgets allocated for them every year.

“Saudi Arabia is facing a series of problems including the modest performance of some government departments in the absence of incentives, efficiency and an environment that could support innovation,” the paper said.

“What happened in Jeddah clearly illustrated the poor performance of government departments because of bribery and widespread corruption….these institutions are also suffering from the lack of clear policies and action plans besides bureaucratic complications in decision-making…this is only putting pressure on the budget and increasing economist costs.”

The report came a few days after King Abdullah created the country’s first specialized anti-corruption body following persistent complaints about widespread mismanagement and other malpractices in the public sector.

The National Authority for Combating Corruption handled its first corruption case last week, involving the oil ministry and another government firm.

The anti-corruption drive gained momentum last year when a popular Saudi Arabic language TV comedy broadcast during the fasting month of Ramadan boldly hit out at corruption in the world’s dominant oil power.

“Tash Ma Tash” devoted a whole episode to hit out at corruption in Saudi Arabia when it showed a journalist trying to expose corrupt officials and businessmen but they try to bribe him to buy his silence.

Although it was a taboo word only recently, corruption is now debated in public in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers as part of ongoing economic reforms and social openness.

Most regional nations have started to debate such issues in parliament and there have been several cases of interrogation of senior officials.

Over the past two years, Saudi newspapers have given expanded coverage to heated Shura (parliament) debates about corruption and abuse of public funds following recurrent Royal statements about the need to fight corruption in the Kingdom, the largest Arab economy with a population of 27.1 million.

In 2010, newspapers reported that GAB complained to King Abdullah that government offices are involved in illegal spending of public money while some are holding up projects and others do not comply with budgetary allocations.

GAB’s Chairman Osama Al Faqih also told the monarch that many pubic institutions have failed to heed a cabinet decision and set up in-house auditing units to ensure discipline and curb financial malpractices.

The policy turnaround in Saudi Arabia also followed intensifying moves to attract foreign investment and eliminate red tape and other malpractices for a better standing in the mushrooming global indices that measure nations’ progress “The performance of the government bodies is still below the required level despite the huge budgets spent on them…the funds spent by Saudi Arabia on health, education and municipalities surpass those spent in industrial nations but our sectors are far below the level in those nations,” GAB said.

“Government bodies in Saudi Arabia need to be supported by qualified auditing personnel to pinpoint difficulties facing them so they can tackle all problems inside them and increase their role and competitiveness.”

In a report early this year, the Arabic language newspaper Okaz said Saudi courts have handled more than 1,800 forgeries, bribes and other corruption cases in the second half of 2010.

The cases included both Saudis and expatriates and involved forging, bribes, swindling, counterfeit currency, manipulation and other offences, it said.

“These cases were handled mostly as criminal cases and they involved defendants from the public and private sectors,” it said.