Holding workers accountable

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.

This article was printed in Arab News on September 11, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The surprise inspection of government offices in Dubai on the morning of Aug. 28 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, found that many managers were not at their desks working. Video released of the ruler showed him walking around empty offices, looking at papers piled on desks and not looking pleased at all.

His surprise inspection tour took him to the municipality, Dubai international airport, the

Land Department and the Department of Economic Development. The next day his office announced the retirement of nine of these managers, mentioning their titles and full names. It was a way of naming and shaming. Just imagine if a similar thing happened here in Saudi Arabia? It would send shockwaves through our bloated bureaucracy.

The ruler felt he could not fire subordinates for not being at work when their superiors were also skipping work. He also stressed that the retirements were a method of retiring the older generation, who had already proved their abilities, to allow the younger generation a chance at running things.

The problem with public servants all around the world is that they often become entrenched and entitled bureaucracies that only want to do their duties when they feel like it and at their own pace. Egypt and India are two countries that have huge civil service contingents that are very efficient when they want to be, and incredibly slow, hard-headed and lazy when it suits them.

Go to any government office in the developing world and more often than not you will find long queues of people waiting to be attended to by bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the government workers can be seen drinking endless cups of tea and bantering among each other, seemingly oblivious to the waiting public. It seems that the quasi-for life jobs that they have, shield them from the efficiency standards that the private sector is subject to.

A recent cartoon in a Saudi newspaper showed a worker running out of an office while hurriedly telling a tea boy to leave a glass of tea on his desk so that his boss would think that he is somewhere in the building and coming back soon. I think everyone who has ever worked in an office laughed at reading the cartoon’s text as it must have struck a chord. But it captured perfectly the attempt of many in Saudi Arabia to appear to be working, while in fact slacking off to go to a social gathering, to smoke or just to bunk off work at the expense of the employer.

Unfortunately far too many Saudis and Gulf citizens think this is still acceptable behavior as long as they don’t get caught neglecting their professional responsibilities. This leads to a loss of morale among other workers in the offices where this occurs. It is also incredibly inefficient and unfair as well; as more often than not someone else in the office will have to do the shirker’s work on top of their own work.

I am sure that there some Saudis who work extremely hard and do not fit this pattern of behavior. Often, we have been lulled into this sense of entitlement and consequent slacking off because of the immense oil wealth we as a nation have been fortunate enough to be blessed with. “Oh, someone else can do my work,” has normally been the attitude. But with the plunge in oil prices, and the realization that our oil reserves will not last forever, Saudis have better wake up soon to their new reality and work much harder than they have ever before.


Learning to pay more for gasoline

The new gasoline prices are displayed at a gas pump recently in the UAE. (Photo courtesy of The National)

The new gasoline prices are displayed at a gas pump recently in the UAE. (Photo courtesy of The National)

This column appeared in Arab News on Aug. 02, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The move by the United Arab Emirates to raise the price of gasoline at the pump by 24 percent from Aug. 1 was a brave one and is a sign of the times. Once again the UAE is being a trailblazer among the Gulf countries, realizing that despite our vast reserves of oil and our low production costs, compared to the US and other countries, our oil will not last forever and we can get much more for it by exporting it rather than selling it at heavily subsidized prices at home.
The initial reaction of Gulf citizens at this news most probably is one of shock and outrage. After all, most of us have grown up with dirt cheap gasoline as our birthright, costing only a few halalas a liter. Having to pay 1.72 dirhams per liter, let alone the new price of 2.14 dirhams per liter, is outrageous to your average Gulf citizen.
But with the drop in the world price of oil from over $100 a barrel over a year ago to the current average of $52 a barrel of today, our rulers have begun to realize that despite our large foreign currency reserves that we accumulated during the years of high oil prices, which are now helping cushion our budget shortcomings, we must stop wasting so much energy domestically both in our cars and in our homes.
Most citizens think that cheap gasoline and electricity have no cost to the government or to society, but they are wrong.
Today, Saudi Arabia has to use one-third of its oil production just to meet electricity demand at home, oil which could have been exported and sold to earn much more income for our government.
And our electricity consumption just keeps on growing. The main reason of course is because of our high temperatures, especially in the summer, where everything has to be air-conditioned 24-hours a day, just to make life bearable. But then our cheap, subsidized power rates encourage people to waste electricity by leaving lights on in their homes all day long, even when they are not at home, and to leave lights on in rooms, when they are at home, in rooms that they are not using.
Some families even leave their air-conditioners running constantly when they go on vacation, even though no one is left at home during that period.
Our cheap gasoline price in the Kingdom, currently 57 halalas a liter (16 US cents) leaves us with the third cheapest gasoline in the world. Only Libya and Venezuela have cheaper gasoline than ours. But is that really something to be proud of? I don’t think so as it just encourages waste. Have you seen how many of our young men drive aimlessly around the streets of our cities on the weekends and during holidays?
If gasoline were SR1.50 a liter, I doubt we would see so many of them roaming the streets as before, which would be a big relief to the young women who get harassed by them.Saving our natural resources and using them wisely should be seen as a patriotic duty and the right thing to do for our nation’s future. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) encouraged us not to be wasteful and to help the less fortunate. Let us follow his advice and stop wasting our oil and electricity so that we can help ourselves and our future generations.


Qatar shooting itself in the foot

llustration by Cruz/O Globo

llustration by Cruz/O Globo

This is my column which appeared in Arab News on March 09, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Tiny Qatar has always liked to be different. And its immense wealth, which comes from its deposits of natural gas, has given it the courage to continue being different and not depend on anyone economically. But now its strong and continued support of the Muslim Brotherhood caused a break with its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on March 5 that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in protest against the fact that Qatar has not implemented a security agreement signed on Nov. 23 last year.

In this agreement, that Qatar signed along with five other members of the GCC, all adhered to a commitment to the principles that guarantee non-interference in the internal affairs of any of the member countries, both directly or indirectly. The agreement also pledged all members not to support any activity that may threaten the safety and stability of any of the GCC countries, organizations or individuals, including support for hostile media.

Although such a commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of other members of the GCC was made, Qatar has allowed Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi — the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has lived in the country for years and is close to the royal family — to attack the UAE and Saudi Arabia for their support of the Egyptian military regime. The government of Qatar gave several billion dollars in economic aid to Egypt when Mursi, a leader of the Brotherhood, won elections and governed for a year.

The Emirati commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi told me in a phone interview that he does not think the Qataris will abandon the Brotherhood, but that several economic projects involving Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates would be delayed because of this diplomatic rupture.

“This reprimand was very public, unlike traditional Gulf reprimands, which are usually done in private, behind the scenes,” said Al-Qassemi.

A victim of the latest tensions will likely be the new airline company, owned by Qatar Airways, which was supposed to launch domestic flights in Saudi Arabia by the end of this year after the Saudi government decided to open the domestic travel market to foreign companies. And as these tensions have been felt for several years, the UAE were already decreasing its imports of natural gas from Qatar, Al-Qassemi said.

Despite these strategic differences, I do not think the GCC will have a dramatic break because of Qatar. The only land border that Qatar has is with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its location and huge deposits of natural gas are too important to be excluded from the union. But Al-Qassemi told me that a new union within the GCC would probably now exclude Qatar.

The government of Qatar in a statement said it was surprised and regretted that the three ambassadors of fraternal countries had been called back to their capitals, stressing that such measures had nothing to do with the interests, security or stability of the peoples of the GCC but was actually a difference in positions on issues outside the GCC.

It is unfortunate that Qatar allows Qaradawi to attack its neighbors. That does not help calm tensions in the Gulf and the Arab world in general, which is experiencing the aftershocks of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which saw dictators being toppled from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt. Maybe Qatar believes it can survive solely with its billions in revenue from its sales of gas, but it would do well to remember that it is in an explosive region, and should try to calm tensions with its neighbors, instead of adding fuel to fire. One hopes fervently that Qatar is not ready to sacrifice its Gulf allies for its support to the Brotherhood.


The dark side of the UAE

Activist and blogger Ahmed Abdul Khaleq was deported to Thailand by UAE authorities. (Reuters photo)

This is a translation of my column that appeared in O Globo on 10/08/2012:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Most of the time in Brazil when I tell someone that I have lived in the Middle East for a long time, I almost always get the same reaction: “Oh, do you know Dubai? My dream is to visit this city!”

I am astonished at the enthusiasm with a city that only 25 years ago had only one skyscraper and was famous for its traditional boats called “dhows”. But Dubai, one of seven emirates comprising the UAE, without the huge amounts of oil of its neighbor Abu Dhabi, which is the federal capital, had to become a center of commerce and international entrepreneurship to survive.

Today, the city has the world’s tallest building, the Burj al-Khalifa tower, huge shopping malls with all the luxury brands, and an airline, Emirates, which was deservedly voted several times the best and most efficient airline in the world.

In the Arab world, Dubai has been a magnet for many professionals overwhelmed by social and religious restrictions in their home countries, attracted by the relative freedom to live their lives there as they see fit.

Dubai does not have the notorious religious police of Saudi Arabia to push the faithful to pray in mosques five times a day, or to check the papers of couples dining in restaurants to make sure that they are married to each other. In addition there is easy access to alcoholic beverages in bars and nightclubs for those who like to drink — something forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

But it is the issue of the lack of political participation of Emiratis where it gets ugly. The country is a federation of absolute monarchies. They decide amongst themselves who will be president and vice president of the country every five years. There is a legislature, the Federal National Council, with only 40 members from all the emirates, half appointed and half elected by a small group of only 130,000 voters of both sexes.

Until 2006, only 1,600 citizens could vote. Only 13 percent of the population of the UAE, of a total of just over eight million, are Emiratis. The rest are expatriates from other Arab countries, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, there to work in the country. In contrast, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, municipal elections have been held nationwide since 2005, open to all adult Saudi men, without restriction. And last year, King Abdullah announced that Saudi women would be entitled to vote in upcoming municipal elections in 2015. For sure, Saudis do not have much political power, but at least there is no discrimination in deciding who will be eligible to vote.

These facts and the recent uprisings in several Arab countries have had a resonance in the few political activists in the UAE, who have asked their government for a greater voice in the future direction of the country. The demands, for a parliament with greater powers and the right of every Emirati citizen to be able to vote in elections, were not well received.

Since March of this year, 50 activists were arrested, with 35 of these in July alone. The authorities accused them, many of whom are Islamists, of trying to form a group abroad to overthrow the government of the UAE.

And we had the bizarre spectacle of the police chief of Dubai, Dahi Khalfan, get into a recent spat on Twitter with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyptian religious leader who has lived in exile for years in Qatar, for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood — about how he would never let supporters of the Brotherhood in the UAE achieve power or allowed space to grow.

The fate of the activist and blogger Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who was born in the UAE and lived there all his life, but who is part of the “bidun” community  — or those who have no Emirati citizenship — is one of the saddest. On July 16, he was deported to Bangkok, Thailand, using a passport of the Comoros Islands. “I never before traveled outside the country in my life,” said the 35-year-old activist to the British newspaper “The Independent”. “I do not know anyone there, I’ll be a stranger in Thailand.” The family scraped together some money so he would not starve.

The human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have asked the UAE government to release all the political detainees.

The reality is that Islamists have been the most active within the democratic movement, both in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The reason is simple, because in the name of the religion, they have had more freedom to organize themselves into study and discussion groups. And, more importantly, they have been the most willing to confront the conservative monarchies to ask them to share more power.

The UAE, understandably, wants to safeguard its economic and social progress, however, arresting activists — who never asked to overthrow the current government — is not the way to do it. Giving all citizens the right to vote in elections, expanding the Parliament and giving it real powers, would all go a long way to satisfy the thirst of the people to having a real say in their future.

The ruler of Sharjah has promised that the prisoners will not be mistreated, and said that a good surprise awaits activists during Eid, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, when the president usually pardons prisoners. Hopefully it will happen.

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