Saudi plans government unit to tackle corruption

Saudi Arabia is planning to create its first government unit to fight corruption as the world's dominant oil exporter is pushing ahead with a drive to attract foreign capital and lessen reliance on unpredictable crude sales.

Saudi officials disclosed the plan at a conference held in Riyadh on Wednesday to discuss upgrading performance at government offices and expanding auditing operations within the state.

"I expect an authority to combat corruption to be established in the near future," said Osama Al Faqih, Chairman of the State Auditing Court. "The creation of this authority will support the auditing system, the follow-up of suspected cases, investigations and the judicial system. Several institutions will be involved in the enforcement of this national strategy for combating corruption and protecting honesty and straightforwardness," Faqih told the conference on "the indicators of the government performance index."

Faqih, who had held many senior official positions including the Minister of Trade portfolio, said the creation of the authority is part of the overall plan to eliminate economic and financial malpractices, improve performance and efficiency, and achieve sustainable development.

He said proposals to create the authority were made during an auditing conference last year and were approved by King Abdullah.

His remarks were the first by a senior Saudi official in many years to acknowledge corruption exists in the Gulf Kingdom although it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

The anti-corruption plan coincides with an intensifying drive by Saudi Arabia to lure in foreign investors and follows its joining the World Trade Organisation after many years of negotiations.

While it was awarded high marks in such fields as financial freedom and labour policies, Saudi Arabia got a poor rating in the corruption record by the US Heritage Foundation in its 2008 index. Heritage, which covers more than 150 countries every year, gave Saudi Arabia 33 points in anti-corruption efforts, one of the lowest ranking in the world. It urged Riyadh to exert more efforts if it wants to woo capital on the grounds foreign companies view corruption as an obstacle to investment.