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When extortion becomes legal

Despite all the posturing and grandstanding that seems to define our region’s elite, some have somehow allowed extortion — the grown-up version of schoolyard bullying — to become part of our social fabric. It is shameful and very embarrassing. The most obvious example is that of powerful Western nations propping fragile regimes in a tragically short-sighted and painfully misguided attempt at creating “world peace.”

History has already demonstrated, repeatedly and often in extremely brutal and violent terms, that this approach does not work. Propping up repressive regimes to support immediate wants will inevitably sacrifice long-term needs for short-term stability, and in the process create fertile breeding ground for radicals. It is the tragedy of our time.

Even more tragic is that some of the region’s elite seem to be taking the liberty of implementing a more literal, hands-on approach, and choosing to leverage the power they hold over public servants, private-sector officials and even the judiciary to extort obscene amounts of money from individuals.

The fact that they claim to do so in the public interest makes the farce all the more tragic. It is a new and extremely dangerous low for all of us in the region. This is especially worrying because it destroys our credibility when we need it most, and threatens to make the already-formidable challenges that lie ahead virtually insurmountable.

Although it is obvious that some of us in the region understand the significance of the challenges that lie ahead better than others, we all seem to agree that failure is not an option. We also seem to agree that the status quo is no longer sustainable, and that Saudi Arabia’s shock announcement last year of ambitious, revolutionary plans to wean itself away from its addiction to oil perfectly captured the region’s mood, spirit and outlook.

The plans, which quickly took root domestically, have since earned significant regional and international support. It was refreshing, for example, to see the official Saudi delegation so eloquently delivering the Vision 2030 narrative at Davos 2017. As a result, the world has collectively sat up and taken notice of Vision 2030, and by extension the region’s plans for the future. The world is watching. We need to be careful what we say and do next.

We must, for example, take the next logical step while we still can. We must accept that to have any chance of realizing the region’s aspirations, we need a solid legal system that cannot be manipulated or undermined by those in power. We cannot reasonably expect the world’s investors to take us seriously otherwise.

We cannot afford to continue gagging our intellectuals and scaring away our innovators while we applaud complacency and encourage subservient compliance. 

Khalid Abdulla-Janahi

This is not advanced economics, it is basic common sense. Also common sense is that we cannot afford to continue gagging our intellectuals and scaring away our innovators while we applaud complacency and encourage subservient compliance. That, perhaps, is the problem.

In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of joining the late Stephen Covey, the international best-selling author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” for lunch. He had flown half way around the world to deliver a presentation that I pointed out was about nothing more than common sense. A tall man, I remember his reply as he towered over me: “Son, who said sense is common?”

I remember that encounter vividly, and the more I think about it, the more I realize just how insightful he was. Sense is, indeed, not at all common. If it were, people capable of extortion would realize it is beneath them to do so, and the problem would not exist in the first place.

If sense was common, we would have also long-recognized the need to focus on creating a level, merit-based environment in which we all have an equal opportunity to grow and prosper, and where calculated risks are encouraged and innovations protected.

These were key elements in the Vision 2030 narrative, as they were in Bahrain’s version years ago, but the key, as always, lies in implementation. We cannot, for example, simply claim we are business-friendly; we need to demonstrate that we are, over and over again.

It is the only way the world will take us seriously, no matter how many high-powered consultants we have on the payroll, how many glossy advertisements we place, or how many clever billboards we put up. The region’s elite need to find the strength of character to start laying the groundwork and implementing some of the great ideas we keep talking about.

Meanwhile, with all the bashing of President Donald Trump, I cannot help but look with admiration, even growing envy, to the current power struggle in the US. It is exceptionally powerful testimony to the true strength of the US, a nation of institutions that creates a natural system of checks and balances, not just in theory and pretty words but in the real world, where things can sometimes get ugly.

Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, we have a long way to go before we can point fingers at the West, despite our continuing posturing and grandstanding.

• Khalid Abdulla-Janahi is the group chief executive of Dar Al-Mal Al-Islami Trust (DMI Trust), with over 30 years of experience in banking and financial services.