Oman Fugitive’s Claims Stir Ire Over Stalled Graft Fight

Opinion Articles

A fugitive Omani businessman has reignited debate over suspicions of corruption in the oil-rich monarchy by alleging that top judicial officials demanded business favors while hearing his court case.

Mudhaher Al-Ajmi’s allegations on Twitter came as a gag order on reporting corruption trials fueled speculation among many Omanis that a once high-profile anti-graft campaign sought to end unrest rather than make the government more accountable. The public prosecutor, among those Al-Ajmi implicated, said his allegations are baseless.

The dispute has coincided with a slump in oil prices that underscores the urgency of luring foreign investment into Oman’s non-energy industries. The country will post a budget deficit of 10 percent of economic output this year, from a surplus of 3 percent in 2014, HSBC Holdings Plc estimates.

 

“Allegations of corruption, particularly after the Arab Spring, cause concern among foreign investors,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Middle East risk adviser Cornerstone Global Associates, said in a phone interview on Jan. 27. “Suspicions of cover-ups exacerbate the problem.”

Demands to stamp out corruption emerged when the monarchy experienced its first major protests in decades in 2011 as unrest rocked the Arab world. Demonstrators called for political openness and more jobs. At least two people were killed in clashes with security forces; dozens were arrested.

Twitter Following

Al-Ajmi’s gathered a following of 76,000 Twitter users after going public in December from an unknown location.

“People aren’t satisfied with how corruption was handled,” Habiba Al-Hinai, an activist who protested in 2011, said in Muscat. “Actually, it wasn’t handled at all.”

While several officials and businessmen were sentenced for bribery and abuse of power in 2014, Oman has banned media from covering graft trials, making it difficult to track appeals and new convictions. The U.S. ally -- it’s a military partner and has facilitated nuclear talks with Iran -- slid three rankings on Transparency International’s latest graft assessment, to 64 of 175 countries.

“If any international report comes out and Oman’s ranking is bad, it is not encouraging for people to come and invest,” Tawfeeq Al-Lawati, a representative in Oman’s parliament, the Majlis Al Shura, said in an interview.

Oman’s net foreign direct investment will likely be steady at about $2 billion in 2015, compared with $15 billion in neighboring United Arab Emirates, the second-biggest Arab economy, HSBC said.

Deals Soured

Al-Ajmi alleges that the public prosecutor, Hussain Al-Hilali, and two other senior justice and law enforcement officials pressured him to sell them products from his Al Tajer Ceramica company at a discount worth tens of thousands of rials in exchange for help in court.

The businessman, who has uploaded documents in support of his allegations, says the officials turned on him after the deals soured. Al-Hilali, the prosecutor, says Al-Ajmi is a criminal who fled a two-year prison sentence for breach of trust in a land sale. Al-Ajmi pleaded not guilty in that case and maintains his innocence.

Dealings between Al-Ajmi’s company and officials “were purely commercial,” Al-Hilali said in a Dec. 20 statement published in local newspapers.

The prosecutor accused Al-Ajmi of another crime: Disturbing public order with his online postings. Eight civil cases had been filed against Al-Ajmi, who’s “wanted internationally,” he said in the statement. Al-Hilali didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Greater Freedoms

A hashtag dedicated to Al-Ajmi’s allegations has attracted thousands of tweets, some critical of the businessman and others targeting officials. Leading the charge is a band of bloggers and online activists, some of whom were in the past arrested after urging greater freedoms.

The 2011 unrest prompted Sultan Qaboos Bin Said to reshuffle his cabinet and create tens of thousands of public-sector jobs. He also announced the anti-corruption drive, led by the State Audit Institution. The sultan, who has ruled Oman for more than four decades, is now receiving treatment in Germany for an unknown medical condition and has no announced successor.

“We had to bring some people for trial to set an example that this is not tolerable or acceptable, and fix the business environment,”Al-Lawati said. “Was it the tip of the iceberg?”

While over the past two years more than 20 government officials and businessmen have been charged with corruption, according to media reports, activists say sentences have been reduced or suspended on appeal.

Sentence Overturned

In December, the Supreme Court dismissed a 23-year jail term for bribery, money laundering and abuse of power given to Ahmed Al-Wahaibi, former chief executive of state-owned Oman Oil. Co., his lawyer, Jihad Al-Taie, said.

Al-Wahaibi will plead not guilty in any retrial, Al-Taie said. Calls to the Supreme Court’s public relations office weren’t answered.

Ahmed Al-Mukhaini, an independent political researcher, said he had been hopeful the government would “be serious about” tackling graft. Instead, the offensive appears to have been designed to appease citizens and burnish the country’s image, he said.

Media curbs have compounded that lack of faith.

“The press isn’t allowed to attend. And we need more disclosure,” said Al-Lawati, the lawmaker. “It is the right of the people to know.”

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