MUSCAT: Take this example of a man who is paid about OMR2,000 a month, is driving an expensive car and owns a building that has 40 flats, 12 shops and a basement parking. Where did he acquire all this wealth from?
Oh, I almost forgot. He also owns a home at Jumeirah Beach in Dubai and a posh flat somewhere in Malaysia. Corruption seems to be deeply entrenched in our society. It is now like second nature in our lives. Yet, such officials or company employees have escaped detection of corruption for the last 40 years.
They have been amassing millions of rials of ill-gotten funds over the years and now they think getting kickbacks is part of the business deal. They also feel it is their divine right to pick the pockets of the government.
As one western oil executive once told me, "if you want to retire in Acapulco, be an official in the Omani energy sector."
The question everybody asks is, why only now we see a series of corruption cases going to court? Is it because our oil wealth is starting to decline at the time when we have problems balancing the fiscal budget? Or is it that it is too widespread that ordinary people cannot tolerate anymore?
Whatever the answer is, if corruption is not rooted out immediately, it will hurt our foreign investment prospects. At this rate, the Sultanate's credibility as an investment destination will fare no better than the so-called banana republics. The only way to stem it, is to punish the culprits by handing them long sentences. In the past, offenders of corruption in the isolated cases — we had seen — got away with lighter prison terms.
The well connected even escaped convictions. It is time they face the consequences of their greed. For justice to be served, perhaps, it is also time to make sure the corrupt are not probing the fellow corrupt. There is a club in our midst that protects each other.
The government also needs to make sure that companies, not just their officials, offering bribes do not get away with it. Such companies should be struck off from bidding future contracts, no matter how well connected they are.
If the court finds them excuses and they are allowed to bid again, the message will be out that it is alright to 'reward' government officials. Then we are not going anyway and these corruption court cases are just a lip service.
The second message, perhaps more devastating, will be to young people and future leaders that plundering the national wealth is part of the Omani way. They will learn that if you cannot have one hand in the government's cash register then 'you are not the man.'
It is happening this way. When you get 10 per cent from a bidding company, it does not come from their bank. They just make the government pay 10 per cent more so it can end up in your pocket. Corrupt officials have either been clever all these years or the probing team has been looking elsewhere when it comes to hiding the bribe money. It is stashed away in the accounts of their spouses, siblings or children. Sometimes even with closed friends. They are not foolish enough to do it here but in overseas accounts.
Then they move back to Oman to clean the money tainted with filth by buying that block of flats. Hang on; not in their names but in names of their children. And here one wonders if our anti-money laundering laws have any teeth at all. Without any doubt we are in a danger of being embroiled in the whims and desires of crooked officials who know that they can find a safety net when they fall.
We are also living in a business environment of contracting companies, both local and international, which can tempt officials with a bag of cash without fear of being punished because their directors belong in the same fraternity club as the probing team.
The members of the public are waiting anxiously to see whether the current court cases of corruption can find anybody guilty, whether a bribing company or the receiving individuals.
And for that matter, if the probers could go deep enough to uncover more cases that stretch back for a number of years. We all know the current cases are just a tip of the iceberg of the scale of corruption the country is in.