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Stopping the rot

Transparency should be best method for KSA to beat corruption

Michael Fahy.
Michael Fahy.

Last week, I wrote about plans to open up the Saudi contracting market to more international firms.

The move should be welcomed as it will tackle a host of problems, including a lack of capacity at the top end of the market which can lead to inflated prices and a lack of reliability.

One problem that it won’t solve, however, is graft. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s most important advisory body, the Shoura Council, reportedly criticised the country’s Transport Ministry over corruption concerns.

Shoura member Abdullah Al-Nasser asked the country’s National Anti-Corruption Commission, Nazaha, to look into a $9.9mn (SR37mn) contract awarded in Riyadh for an overpass project. Arab News said that the company overseeing the work received only half of the contract’s value, $4.3mn, and that the overpass, which was meant to link a number of key roads, remained unfinished for six years despite being only 100m in length.

In June, the council’s members also called for Nazaha to investigate long-running delays on the Haramain High Speed Rail project (right), which was originally due to complete in 2012, and into hold-ups to the Kingdom’s plan to deliver projects like Knowledge Economic City in Makkah and Jazan Economic City.

In all of these cases, it should be stated that the council has called for action or an investigation, and that no trials have taken place to prove innocence or guilt. However, previous cases have gone through courts where bribery of high-level officials has been exposed.

In August, an urban planning director from the Eastern Province Municipality was convicted of asking developers for cash or company stakes in return for approving schemes.

And the most notable case in recent years involved the jailing of a former Jeddah Mayor who was found to have taken illegal payments from contractors carrying out flood defence works. Alterations agreed by the mayor were subsequently blamed as a cause of the city’s 2009 floods that killed 123 people and destroyed almost 12,000 homes.

Senior roles in public authority carry great power, but also a responsibility to the people that officials are meant to serve.
Taking bribes or kickbacks of any kind ultimately leaves them exposed as they lose legitimacy over the contractors hired to carry out work to the standards expected.

The entry of more international firms into the market could change things to an extent, as many US-based firms in particular face stringent penalties in their home markets if they are caught up in corruption cases.

Perhaps the best weapon the Kingdom could employ for weeding out bribes, though, would be a more open system of bidding, such as the one adopted by Oman’s Tender Board where anyone can see which contracts are open, who has submitted bids and – once the bids are opened – the value of the offers made to carry out work.

The system isn’t foolproof, but it does make it much harder to justify awarding large contracts to companies who attempt to win work by less than scrupulous means.

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