Bahrain’s Crown Prince has ordered the referral of a number of cases mentioned in the National Audit Court (NAC) report to the Public Prosecution for criminal investigation on suspicion of corruption, singling out cases related to the state-owned Bahrain Flour Mills Company and the Bahrain Chamber for Dispute Resolution for special mention. It was announced that those on trial for corruption charges would be also be suspended from work.
The unprecedented announcement could almost not have been better timed. For the past month, local press has been full of the usual controversy that surrounds the annual publication of the anti-corruption NAC report. But calls for greater accountability have grown louder over the past few days as the government hesitantly announced its intention to embark on a subsidy reform program. Basic commodities are expected to be affected: diesel will see a price hike of up to 20% as early as January 2014.
The NAC, an entity independent of the executive created by the King in 2002, issues an annual report that documents instances of financial and administrative violations committed by ministries, public agencies and state-owned enterprises. In cases of a criminal nature, article 11 of Decree Law no. 16 for 2002 grants the NAC power to transfer these to the judiciary for prosecution.
Although the NAC report is not a public document, its major elements are published in the press, and copies usually obtained by members of parliament can often be found freely exchanging hands at almost any of Bahrain’s traditional diwaniyya’s.
It was the government’s misfortune however, that the publication of the NAC this year roughly coincided with an deluge of rain that exposed weaknesses in the country’s infrastructure, leaving a number of roads and social housing projects considerably affected. To add insult to injury, word was soon out that the Minister of Education had ordered schools not to provide pictures of flooded schools and classrooms to the press, reinforcing public anger against corruption and the incompetence of certain government officials.
To make matters worse, the NAC report proved incapable of assuaging public concern over the level of public-sector corruption. Due to restrictions on its mandate, the report omits some of the major instances of corruption committed by government officials, some of which have eventually made themselves known to the public. Over the years, this has afforded the report the semblance of impotence.
To illustrate, in an otherwise staunchly pro-government, traditional diwaniyya in the Sunni stronghold of Muharraq, one MP from Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood society aptly described the NAC report as “a PG photo album of a very decadent party”.
One such case is the multi-million dollar Alba corruption scandal that predates the creation of the NAC. The case has captivated public opinion, but is nowhere to be found in the report – the result of the NAC‘s inability to investigate violations retrospectively. To the frustration of many, the related bribery trial of businessman Victor Dahdaleh in British courts appears to have recently collapsed.
The NAC has consistently failed to make any meaningful use of its power to transfer cases to the judiciary for prosecution, even when the scope of its findings has remained relatively narrow. The NAC’s recommendations to government entities routinely fall on deaf ears, since no credible threat or enforcement mechanism has so far been put in place.
So unsurprisingly, frustration over the level of corruption has anything but leveled. Bahrain’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index – which “measures perceived levels of public sector corruption” – worsened six places down in 2013 compared to the previous year, ranked 57th out of 175 countries worldwide.
Even then however, the Crown Prince’s renewed anti-corruption effort faces serious threats particularly from powerful elites with a deep vested interest in maintaining the fig leaf of impunity. In the latest episode of the ongoing proxy war around corruption, a small yet vocal clique of individuals have gone to some lengths to protect a senior official implicated in the $3 billion Alba corruption scandal. They have waged a smear campaign against Mahmood Al-Koheji – CEO of Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat – for allegedly authorizing the $45 million legal fees required to see the $3 billion case through court. The intimidation campaign is the latest in a series of efforts intended to dissuade Al-Koheji and others from taking on similar cases.