Corruption is the single biggest hindrance to progress

But positive developments in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan suggest change could be coming

FILE - In this Monday, May 14, 2018 file photo, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, carry his image as they celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq. Al-Sadr, who led punishing attacks on American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, appears set to secure the most significant victory of his political career with a strong showing in the May 12 parliamentary election. Al-Sadr gained popularity as a nationalist voice campaigning against corruption and against Iran’s influence in the country. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Powered by automated translation

Following the fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003, billions of dollars in contracts and aid streamed into the fragile Iraqi state. As the country shed its socialist-style economy and embraced capitalism, a coterie of politicians and officials syphoned off revenue from Iraq’s oil bounty. State bodies designed to combat corruption were themselves engulfed by it.

And today, 15 years on, many Iraqis still lack access to basic essential services. A month-long wave of protests is yet to abate in the country, which ranks 169 out of 180 countries on Transparency International's corruption index – where mismanagement is endemic and incompetence the norm.

Given its recent history of invasion and ISIS militancy, Iraq is distinctive. And yet the problems that have gripped the nation since the US-led invasion are replicated throughout the Middle East.

In many of the region’s countries today, corruption is the single greatest hindrance to progress. When institutions are themselves compromised, there is no easy fix. In Iraq and elsewhere, corruption might take a generation to resolve, but there now appears to be an effort to crack down.

The citizens of nearby Lebanon have been inflicted with daily power outages since the country’s civil war ended in 1990. Endemic corruption in the bestowing of contracts and the lack of investment in infrastructure are chiefly to blame. And with utility provision already hopelessly inadequate, Lebanon has absorbed more than one million Syrians since the civil war began there in 2011.

Lebanon’s self-serving political elite might suggest that the refugee influx is exculpatory. They are wrong.

In neighbouring Jordan, which is facing a Dh2.7 billion fiscal deficit and a high debt-to-GDP ratio, public fury at years of corruption and mismanagement spilled into the streets in June. Jordan will now rely on loans from the International Monetary Fund, which are dependent on austerity measures that will hit the country's middle class the hardest.

To outsiders, particularly those in the West where institutions are habitually sturdy, the solutions might seem obvious. Such an assessment overlooks the calcification of the patronage systems at play.

But with public anger rising, things might be about to change – albeit slowly. Cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's nationalist coalition triumphed in recent elections in Iraq after running on an anti-corruption platform. And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi announced the Integrity Commission is investigating more than 5,000 cases of corruption.

In Jordan, new prime minister Omar Al Razzaz has put corruption front and centre in a bid to regain public trust. Meanwhile Lebanon's caretaker government is taking action against unscrupulous generator dealers who charge extortionate fees.

In these three nations much work still needs to be done. And yet the economic and political benefits of tackling corruption are painfully clear, both within countries and for the region at large.