In case you haven't heard by now, the Panama Papers (a massive series of leaked documents which revealed thousands of cases of money laundering and tax evasion) have implicated hundreds of current and former world leaders in a series of (mostly) non-violent crimes. Already, the fallout from these revelations have forced the Prime Minister of Iceland to resign, while also putting the current British Prime Minister David Cameron in an awkward situation. But while the Panama Papers have shaken things up in several countries throughout Europe, they don't seem to have had the same effect on powerful figures throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This week, we'll see why the implications of the Panama Papers mean basically nothing for the region.
1) Most of the people implicated hold absolute power (or are already deposed)
Among the hundreds of people named in the Panama Papers were such honored and respected figures as the Mubaraks of Egypt, Algeria's minister of Industry, former Iraqi Vice President and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and a couple former emirs of Qatar. Saudi Arabia's King Salman was also one of the high-profile individuals linked in this tax dodging scheme. Several others within the sprawling house of Saud have been implicated as well, but Salman's position as absolute monarch of one of the Middle East's most important countries would seem at first to be especially concerning. Then again, it's no secret that many powerful families in the Middle East are often engaged in sketchy behavior. Like an Arab version of the Hilton family, they are often known for being ridiculously wealthy and willing to show it off. Given this reality, it didn't really surprise anyone in Saudi Arabia that the king was dodging taxes on his properties in Britain.
So is anything likely to change because of this new information? Well, would you be surprised if it was revealed that the Trump family was dodging taxes using sketchy means? Of course not. Few allied countries are likely to make a fuss over this (some, like Britain, are dealing with their own scandals over the Panama Papers), so international pressure is unlikely. Within these countries, there isn't nearly the same strict observance of monetary ethics as we seem to hold in the United States. Sure, many within Saudi Arabia are concerned about the ethics of their leaders and desire a more open and tolerant society. But a lot of people are more than content to see a society where the king keeps the peace and provides the means to attain a good life. After all, what good is a completely honest and ethical leader if he or she can't even keep the lights running? In Egypt, Alaa Mubarak's father has already been deposed for years, so he had very little influence remaining in the country to begin with. In short, most everyone named is already out of power, or so powerful that these allegations are unlikely to change anything.
2) Syria got caught bypassing sanctions (that it didn't agree with in the first place)
The papers also revealed that Syrian president (and mass murderer) Bashar al-Assad was using fake companies to circumvent trade sanctions and restrictions placed on him. These are the same ones that the United States began enforcing because of Assad's indiscriminate attacks against Syrian opposition populations. Like the revelations around the Saudi family, this new information isn't exactly surprising. After all, are we really surprised that a man responsible for gassing his own people would try to undermine sanctions he doesn't agree with in the first place?
It doesn't look like this information will change anything about Syria either. Sure, the fake companies are being tracked down and their assets frozen, but Syria still receives a majority of its support from the Russian government (which also doesn't really care about U.S. sanctions). America may be able to take down a number of these companies funneling money into the Syrian regime, but even that won't do much to end the conflict. As we have discussed several times before, the Syrian civil war is an infinitely complex mess and not likely to be resolved by the shutting down of a couple fake companies.
3) Most of the Middle East is far more concerned with stability than monetary ethics
The debate between stability and autocratic ethics has raged for decades throughout the Middle East. To be fair, these two things are not mutually exclusive. Countries can have both stable governments and ethical leaders. But more often than not, strong central governments in the Middle East are more likely to opt for stability rather than ethical rule. And given the choice between heads literally rolling in the street or national leaders with squeaky clean bank accounts, most would choose the former. Sure, the Saudi government might be dodging taxes in Britain, but at least they keep the country from falling apart (albeit with a terrible human rights record).
This isn't to say that many in the Middle East don't care about the ethical financial practices of their leaders. It just doesn't take precedence right now in most instances. In all, the scandal around the Panama Papers has mostly been a "Western" concern. Countries like Iceland and Britain have ran into trouble because of these documents, but leaders in Russia and China aren't exactly feeling the burn. Much of this probably has to do with the extreme limits to freedom of the press in these countries as well. But the lack of concern in these places over the revelations of the Panama Papers also highlights a difference in priorities. Perhaps we are fortunate to have the luxury of being able to worry about our leader's ethical practices rather than fearing complete government collapse. This doesn't excuse the illegal actions of the Panama Papers by any means. But maybe the reaction (or lack thereof) from the Middle East to the Panama Papers can provide us with some context about the priorities of other regions of the world.