World

For Economic Growth, We Need the Rule of Law

Skyline of Dubai, December 29, 2018. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)
From China to the Middle East, intellectual-property theft, corruption, and fraud prevent the free flow of capital and trade.

President Trump says that growth is jeopardized in some countries, even though international trade and investment have promoted economic expansion. Just look and see where the rule of law isn’t followed or where governments ignore the theft of key technologies and intellectual property.

Last February, FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese spies masquerading as academics and scientists pose “a whole-of-society threat” to the United States. “They’re exploiting the very open research-and-development environment that we have, which we all revere,” he said.

But China isn’t the only threat. The Swiss-based Coalition to Fight Financial Crime estimates that $2 trillion of global output represents the proceeds of criminal activity. Money laundering remains rampant.

Across much of the developing world, the corruption of courts and other government institutions threatens the free flow of goods and capital that drives international trade. Left unaddressed, such threats can lead to heightened tensions among nations and even outright trade wars. Diplomats operate under constraints that limit how much they can call out international bad actors who violate the rule of law.

That’s why it’s refreshing that the Global Justice Foundation — a new nonprofit foundation in Washington, D.C. — is dedicated to exposing corruption in other countries, aiding innocent victims caught up in that corruption, and working with like-minded groups to promote good economic practices in countries that want to improve their economic reputation.

The Global Justice Foundation was founded by Canadian businessman Omar Ayesh, who was frustrated after he and hundreds of other victims lost their money in the largest real-estate fraud in the Middle East, the Tameer Holding scandal, a debacle valued at $1.8 billion by courts in Dubai. “I learned there is no group solely dedicated to improving the enforcement of business ethics in other countries and helping make sure people aren’t victimized by fraudsters who try to corrupt the courts and other institutions,” he tells me.

Last month, Global Justice opened for business with a lunch at which former U.S. solicitor general and former federal appeals-court judge Ken Starr spoke on the importance of its mission. “No one should be above the law,” said Starr. “That’s easy to say, and hard to achieve. We need to eliminate the darkness of hidden corruption and seek justice.” Starr is serving as a volunteer legal adviser for the foundation, with no compensation.

Starr said that the case in Dubai that prompted Ayesh to found Global Justice illustrates the challenges facing both large and small investors overseas. He noted that Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has issued a document that states, “No one is above the law in Dubai, starting with the ruling family. The law does not discriminate between citizens and residents, rich and poor, male and female, Muslims and non-Muslims. Justice delayed is justice denied.” But Starr noted that the behavior of Dubai’s courts in the Tameer Holdings case has put those pious promises to the test.

The Tameer case has dragged on in the Dubai courts for eleven years. During this span, Ayesh and others have presented documentary evidence that the powerful Al-Rajhi family of Saudi Arabia engaged in bribes, forgery, and misappropriation of assets valued in the billions, and also threatened court-appointed experts in Dubai.

The case has much broader implications because both Saudi Arabia and Dubai are keen on becoming international commercial centers that marry sound legal frameworks with economic and political stability. Since Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, he has claimed that the jailing of rival members of the royal family is to provide “greater security for investors.” But his anti-corruption drive mostly resembles a shakedown operation, and his regime continues to target dissidents such as the murdered Jamal Khashoggi. He has also completely ignored the role that Ahmed Al-Rajhi, who is his own minister of labor, has played in the Tameer scandal.

“My case is similar to others the Global Justice Foundation will pursue. Some will involve large victims, some very small,” says Ayesh. “Our mission is to educate people about different miscarriages of justice so they know how to avoid becoming victims. This sunlight will also pressure countries to improve their judicial and anti-corruption systems.” He notes that the Middle East is a clear problem area in this regard. A report by Refinitiv, a financial-markets data firm, found that 73 percent of Middle Eastern companies, spiking to 85 percent in Saudi Arabia, are aware of financial crime in their global operations.

Sidney Powell, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and past president of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, chairs Global Justice’s board. (I am advising the foundation on future cases to spotlight.) Powell says that such work is more needed than ever. “We have a huge problem worldwide; business requires certainty within which to operate,” she tells me. “If countries want to become financial capitals and be considered safe for investment, they have to create a legal system that pays more than lip service to the rule of law. They have to actually enforce the rule of law.”

If the world’s trading system and capital flows are going to continue to grow, countries must make sure that corrupt players cannot subvert the rule of law, whether by purloining of intellectual property or fleecing investors.

 

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