Bribery and Corruption in Saudi Arabia
JEDDAH: Bribery is the most pervasive form of corruption in contemporary societies. Hardly a day passes without learning about a corruption case of some senior official or a government employee.
In July a court sentenced 16 Taif municipal employees to fines and jail time for accepting bribes in exchange for special treatment. The men were accused of varying degrees of bribery that earned them fines of between SR3,000 and SR100,000. Some were sentenced to jail; all of them lost their jobs.
One of the men was found guilty of taking an SR180,000 bribe to issue a license for a building whose owner had not fulfilled stipulated conditions. Another case involved a municipal employee accepting SR7,500 from a businessman in exchange for a municipal contract. Another local government official accepted SR50,000 to issue a commercial license to a businessman.
A successful 30-year-old businessman, who didn’t want his name published, said he puts bribery into different categories and points out that some bribes are given in the form of expensive gifts, such as plane tickets or other reciprocal favors. “Without exaggeration, 95 percent of governmental procedures require bribes,” he said.
Bribery or ‘compensation’?
However, as a successful and wealthy businessman, he justified giving bribes as an understanding and appreciation for the government employees who work for low wages.
“If I have some legal papers for a one-million-riyal deal and the employee handling my paper draws just SR4,000 a month, I give him some money under the table,” he added.
Government procedures could take some time to be done. The businessman said the easiest thing an employee could say is “come back tomorrow” and that the worker could stall his papers for a long time if “I don’t pay that extra money.” Last year, eight health officials in Madinah were accused of taking bribes from 13 Saudi and foreign businessmen. The bribes were taken for granting licenses to open, move or transfer ownership of a number of pharmacies. The businessman said he thinks corruption is much less frequent at the municipality level than it is at the Ministry of Health.
“If I am importing cosmetics, for example, I have to get an approval for each product I am getting into the country. So, I pay up to SR10,000 for each product just to get the procedures and permits done quickly. The bribes could reach up to SR100,000,” he said. “It’s all about connections.”
Sliding scale of bribery
Construction offices now handle building permits in an attempt to streamline procedures and eliminate corruption. The construction offices work as mediators between the person asking for a permit and the municipality.
However, the businessman said the problem of corruption persists in these offices, and that cost of these bribes increases in proportion to the value of the procedure being sought. And some simply view it as a tip for expedited service.
“Whoever works in these offices has their own way to extract bribes,” he added. “I don’t mind paying bribes.”
Although there are no accurate estimates of the level of corruption in the municipality or any other governmental sector, an employee at the municipality confirmed that it’s high.
The source at the Jeddah municipality told Arab News that the bribe amount depends on the favor and the permit one wants.
However, he justified the behavior of some employees like himself who take “compensations” by criticizing the low pay and depressing work environment.
“There is no certain system for compensation,” he added. “If you are close to the boss then you are on the right spot. If not, then you will be marginalized.”
He also blamed foreigners for introducing bribery to the country. “One apple ruins all the rest,” he added.
He believes if salaries were increased then the prevalence of bribery would lessen bit by bit.
“The problem is that some weak-hearted employees have control and they abuse the system for their own sakes,” he said.
Ahmed Ali, 32, whose uncle owns a wedding hall in Jeddah, said municipal inspectors arrive from time to time demanding bribes under the threat of finding some reason to close the business down.
“My uncle is a good man and the wedding hall is his only source of income,” said Ahmed Ali. “But municipality employees make it harder on him to be a decent man who fears Allah.”
Another prominent businessman told Arab News that most of his work — whether it’s related to customs or the municipality — includes paying bribes. The businessman, who also requested anonymity, said the amount of the bribe increases in relation to the financial interest in the procedure.
“When the cargo is bigger, the payment is higher,” he said.
The 10% incentive
The businessman also criticized the incentives that the municipality provides public workers, where 10 percent of a fine collected goes to them.
For example, if the violation costs the store SR2,000, then the worker takes a SR200 bonus for issuing the violation. “We face a lot of problems with some municipality workers. They come to our stores to dig for violations and when there isn’t any they try to make up one,” said the businessman.
“We all know that the salaries are really low. We could justify such actions from some workers, but it’s also not fair for the public,” he said.
“We can’t deny that they have some positive side especially when it comes to some restaurants and stores violating health and hygiene codes,” he added.
Although anti-corruption laws provide severe penalties against the corrupt of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to SR1 million, it seems that paying “compensation” for public services is often the norm not the exception.