Egyptian writer Wahid Hamed’s 1992 tale, Al Irhab Wal Kabab (Terror and Kebab) tells the story of Ahmed who goes to Cairo’s government complex to get the papers of his son’s school transfer done. He thought it was a simple task. However, after long hours of struggling with lazy employees, he fails to get the required papers. He was then told to come the day after. Ahmed, following his first face to face agonising experience with the then famously sluggish Egyptian bureaucracy, decides he’s had enough, snatches the gun of a security guard, and takes everyone in the complex hostage.
The story, which later turned into an iconic film starring Adel Imam, put the Egyptian bureaucracy on trial. It shed a critical light on the prevailing and exasperating red tape in the Arab world, where inefficient bureaucracy became an obstacle to progress and a source of corruption.
Most historians agree that the Arab government bureaucracy owes its roots to the French bureaucratic system in the end of the 18th century. It was imported to our region during the French campaign, led by Napoleon Bonaparte between the years 1798 and 1801. Napoleon, according to historian, attempted to reform the Egyptian by bringing in French bureaucrats who designed a new system in Egypt based on their way of doing business in France. From there, and due to the huge influence of Egypt in the Arab world, the system was copied by most Arab states that were born in later years.
But while the French system evolved quickly and greatly in the past 200 years in France and the rest of Europe, the Arab bureaucracy actually slipped back. It became awfully tired and ineffective. Over the past two decades, most Arab countries, pushed by aggressive international bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), tried to reform their bureaucracy. Some have succeeded. Some still struggle with the French legacy.
Gulf on the march
In the Gulf, it can be easily described as a brighter picture. Buoyed by ample financial means and forward-looking leaders, most Gulf states moved quickly since the start of the millennium to upgrade their systems of governance with the ultimate goal of creating a totally smart government with zero red tape. In the UAE, for example, most of the government services can be done now online. Upgrading the system, these governments realised, is a prerequisite for attracting foreign investment, emanating corruption, diversifying the economy, and cutting government expenditures.
The coronavirus pandemic, which forced more than 4 billion people to stay home in the past two months, was a surprise test for Arab governments efficiency. Those who moved to a smart government way of doing business have managed to function effectively during the crisis. Others who lag behind have been paralysed. Their population have been denied essential services due to the lockdowns.
As governments and businesses across the world turned to remote working, online meetings, digital transactions and e-learning, some government struggled to satisfy the minimum acceptable offerings of services to their citizens.
Therefore, it is imperative that the Arab world sees this crisis as an opportunity to reform their old tired bureaucracy and swollen but mostly inefficient government structures. And “Anyone who thinks the post-COVID-19 world will be the same as the one before it is mistaken,” as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai remarked last week.
Sheikh Mohammed, whose vision led one of the most successful government transformation experiences in the world, was speaking during the cabinet meetings last week to draw a new strategy for the UAE post-COVID-19. The goals of the meetings are clear. “We will review the Cabinet structure. We may reshuffle the Cabinet, merge ministries, change entities and introduce changes. We need a more lean, resilient and faster government that can keep pace with the new and different national priorities.” In other words, even the UAE successful example of smart government may not be sufficient to deal with the post-coronavirus pandemic world.
Therefore, the new road maps announced by some Gulf countries- such as in the UAE, or the 2030 Vision in Saudi Arabia, or the 2035 Vision in Kuwait, must be adjusted to conform to the world’s new reality.
These visions aim at creating a business-friendly environment, diversifying the economy, empowering women, creating jobs for all citizens and improving the standard of living. As the coronavirus outbreak shattered the global economy, leading to significant decline of the oil prices and wiped a great part of government revenues, realising the goals of those visions might prove challenging.
Arab government, therefore, need to seize the opportunity to let go of their traditional bureaucracy to create leaner, agile, and efficient government structures and move their basic services online. That will naturally help reduce the expenditures. Those savings can be shifted to support the health, education, and science innovation sectors in which the post-COVID 19 world will be competing.