Organized crime is an ever-evolving, transnational threat that affects every country in the world and poses a global threat to peace and security. It transcends borders and undermines sustainable development, governance, economic stability and public health. Nations experiencing conflict and its immediate aftermath are the most vulnerable.
On September 28, the Global Organized Crime Index was published, the first report of its kind designed to assess levels of organized crime and resilience to organized criminal activity in 193 UN member states. (There is no data for the Occupied Palestinian Territories or Western Sahara.)
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The index, a collaborative effort by over 350 experts worldwide funded by the US State Department and the European Union, provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the pervasiveness of criminal markets, the influence of criminal actors and the effectiveness of resilience measures to combat the threat of organized crime. It is based on data from 2020, to be updated every two years in order to provide a global baseline for criminality and resilience over time.
Overall, the index highlights the entrenched nature of organized crime, with more than three-quarters of the world’s population assessed as living in countries with high levels of crime and low levels of resistance to organized crime. State involvement in organized crime is shown to be a deeply embedded phenomenon globally, with state officials and their clients now the most dominant brokers of organized crime, not cartel leaders or mafia bosses.
While Western democracies come out on top, Arab countries generally score poorly, with Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Iraq coming bottom or near the bottom in several categories. Overall, the most criminal Arab country is found to be Iraq (ranked 8th globally), followed by Syria (14), Lebanon (15), Libya (20) and Sudan (24).
The index evaluates every country according to two metrics: criminality, which is based on criminal markets and five different types of criminal actors, and resilience to organized crime, based on 12 factors such as good governance, law enforcement and witness support.
The most pervasive crime in the region is found to be human trafficking, which includes modern slavery and organ trafficking, as well as human smuggling — the illegal entry, transit or residence of migrants (by land, sea or air) by an organized criminal group for the purposes of a financial or material benefit.
Three Arab countries — Libya, Yemen and the UAE — are ranked among the five worst countries in the world for human trafficking. Syria and Iraq are both rated as the third-worst countries globally for human smuggling. According to the index, in Libya “Smuggling is generally associated with high levels of violence and high death rates. The state has little control over the entire territory and many state officials reportedly benefit from the profits of migrant smuggling.”
Regarding the UAE, the index notes that “In combination with the continuation of the sponsorship (Kafala) system and a failure of the government of the UAE to meet the minimum standards for combating trafficking and smuggling, the demand for cheap labour enables both human smuggling and trafficking on a relatively large scale.”
After trafficking and smuggling humans, other crimes the index considers are the narcotics trade, arms trafficking, and wildlife and resource crimes. Libya is ranked as the worst country in the world for arms trafficking, followed by Yemen, Turkey and Syria. In Libya, “Most arms dealers are relatively small and play a mediator role between different actors.
Other enabling structures, such as offshore banking, offshore companies and jurisdictions with low levels of enforcement and high levels of corruption, play a much more significant role in facilitating arms transfers,” the index states.
“Yemen has widespread gun ownership and one of the largest arms-trafficking markets in the world, with weapons redirected from military stores or acquired from foreign actors. Ongoing conflict has resulted in an increase of light and medium weapons such as Turkish pistols and silencers, but tanks, ammunition, grenades, machine guns and light armoured vehicles are also sold in open-air arms markets.”
Iraq is ranked fifth-worst country globally for non-renewable resource crimes, meaning the illicit extraction, smuggling, mingling, bunkering or mining of natural resources. Morocco and Lebanon are ranked as the worst countries in the world (along with Paraguay and Jamaica) for the illicit cultivation, distribution and sale of cannabis.
Sudan is the next-worst cannabis offender globally: “In 2015, cannabis cultivation in Sudan generated over 7 billion USD in profits and in 2019, Sudan reported the seizure of over 16 000 cannabis crops.”
Syria is now a full-blown narco-state ranked number one globally for the production, distribution and sale of synthetic drugs: “Syria’s cannabis and synthetic-drug trades are flourishing. … Synthetic drugs are also smuggled out of Syria to neighbouring countries and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as to Europe. Easy access to ingredients enables synthetic-drug production to flourish, and Captagon production in particular has been increasing in recent years.”
In terms of resistance to organized crime, Jordan is ranked as the most resilient Arab country (39th globally), followed by Qatar (51), Kuwait (=55), Bahrain (=55) and the UAE (68). The countries ranked as having the least resistance to organized crime in the world are Libya, followed by Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.
“There is little to no political leadership and governance in Libya on organised-crime issues. … The approach of different governing entities in Libya is consistently characterized by a co-option approach. The state has been involved in a co-option strategy for activities such as human smuggling and fuel. … Libya has one of the highest corruption perception levels in the world.”
On Somalia, the index observes: “Most NGOs and all UN agencies are banned from territories that are controlled by al-Shabaab. On the domestic level, while Somalia has several laws related to organized crime, it is the worst-performing country in the world when it comes to rule of law. Somalia’s penal code has not been updated since 1964. Currently, there is no legislation that explicitly criminalizes sex trafficking and forced labour.”
The Global Organized Crime Index is compiled by in-house researchers as well as external journalists, academics and members of civil society. It is innovative in how it assesses the vulnerabilities and resilience to organized crime in a quantitatively based and expert-led way.
But it has its shortcomings, notably in the kind of terminology used that does not reflect the reality of organized crime in today’s Middle East and North Africa. None of the index’s four types of criminal actors — mafia-style groups, criminal networks, state-embedded actors and foreign actors — accurately describe groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Gulf royal families, the Houthis or Hezbollah that are among the biggest perpetrators of organized crime in the region.
While the report considers a range of international crimes, it does not include international kidnap and assassination — such as those undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s personal Tiger Team group — even though Saudi dissidents in the UK are still forced to live under the protection of British counterterrorism police.
Nor does the index include the crime of corrupting international and Western institutions, which Arab monarchies are known to be experts at. The case of King Juan Carlos who went into exile in the UAE in 2020 after Spain’s supreme court launched an investigation into his alleged involvement in a high-speed rail contract in Saudi Arabia is just one high-profile example.
The report also fails to consider the spreading of disinformation, the hacking of UK citizens, the infiltration and surveillance of the diaspora or election meddling — all activities Arab regimes busily pursue.
The index should highlight the key role Arab embassies and consulates play in perpetrating organized crime around the world, with Arab diplomats often linked to serious organized crime. This includes gold smuggling by UAE diplomats in India, Saudi threats against UN officials, as well as Saudi diplomats arranging flights for Saudi criminals who have committed very serious offenses in the West, including murder, to evade justice and abscond back to Saudi Arabia, undermining the Western judicial process.
*[This article was originally published by Arab Digest, a partner organization of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.