The Middle East as a whole has not fared well historically when assessing the risk of public sector corruption in business. But the reality is not so uniform, as indicated by the latest version of a global survey published last month. The UAE has improved its Corruption Perceptions Index ranking by clinching the 21st position, leading the region as a place to do business in the Middle East.

Transparency International (TI), the leading international organisation combatting and monitoring bribery and corruption around the world, has published its latest Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 last month.

This is a global index that ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived (rather than actual) levels of public-sector corruption according to a range of expert organisations. The index uses a scale of 0 to 100 with 0 being highly corrupt and 100 very clean.

New Zealand topped the list with a score of 89.

Top ranking for the UAE

While TI has concluded that some Middle Eastern countries have seen a "drastic" rise in their perceived level of corruption in the past year, the United Arab Emirates has maintained its position as the cleanest country in the Middle East according to the index, placed at 21st in the league table – up 3 places from last year – with a 2017 score of 71. This ranking places the UAE ahead of France and fifteen other European Union countries.

The UAE's impressive score and ranking were, according to TI, the result of "good and efficient management of public finances, improved public procurement and better access to public services and infrastructure".

Hamad Al Hurr Al Suwaidi, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Accountability Authority (ADAA), the anti-corruption governmental body in Abu Dhabi, however, commented that "21 is not good enough; we aim to continue to progress in our efforts to boost transparency and efficiency in government."

In the recent years, the UAE authorities have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and empowered bodies such as the ADAA and the Federal Audit Department in Dubai to root out corruption in the public sector. There is comprehensive legislation (including provisions in the UAE Federal Penal Code and the Federal Human Resources Law) that combat bribery and are regularly enforced and applied by the Public Prosecutor and enforcement authorities.

In other areas, the UAE has implemented legislation to improve transparency and stamp out corruption. For example, there is specific anti-money laundering and terrorism financing legislation in place since 2002, which was significantly updated and enhanced in late 2014 when the UAE brought its legal framework into closer alignment with the OECD Financial Action Task Force's Recommendations.

GCC States see mixed results

Most Arab states did not score above 50 in the Corruption Perceptions Index, though Saudi Arabia scored 49, placing it third in the region and in 57th place overall.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia saw a significant improvement to its ranking, moving up five places from its previous year's rank of 62nd to a rank this year of 57th (up from a score of 46 to 49). The news comes on the back of the recent campaign by Saudi Arabia to stamp out corruption in the country and target the objectives of "Vision 2030". In 2017, Saudi Arabia made concerted efforts to combat corruption including establishing a National Anti-Corruption Commission led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in November 2017 which led to a series of arrests of some prominent Saudi Arabian princes, government ministers, and businessmen.

Saudi officials welcomed the results in the Corruption Perceptions Index, with Minister of Economy and Planning Mohammed Altwejri, stating that "we are dedicated to achieving the objectives in the Vision 2030 plan, which includes improving transparency and accountability in every facet of our government, and this report shows we're making progress".

The trend in the GCC was largely split with the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the one hand all seeing improvements on their 2016 scores, whilst conversely Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain fell down the league table in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Bahrain in fact experienced a sharp drop since last year with its score plummeting 7 points from 43 to 36.

Low ranking for some Middle East countries

The falling standings of the three Gulf States point to the deeper problems across much of the Arab world, according to TI's press release entitled "Rampant Corruption in Arab States". Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya all among the seven most corrupt states in the world, according to the rankings. These worst performing Arab states are said to suffer from weak public institutions, internal conflict and deep instability, primarily as a result of ongoing civil wars, and corrupt government and governance.

In contrast, TI saw signs of progress in a number of Arab countries, with Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, all taking positive steps towards fighting corruption and increasing transparency and integrity.

Progress in anti-corruption

While the Corruption Perceptions Index focuses on public sector (rather than private sector) corruption, and the observations of TI are understandably quite stark (with the intention of prompting governments to act in their respective countries), it is clear that the best performing governments in the Middle East, such as in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are now reaping rewards from taking the TI rankings and the perception of corruption seriously and are making significant strides to address previous areas of concern.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.