By SANDY PITT*
Our Man in the Emirates
YOU know what it’s like. It’s the first day of the new school year, you’ve finally packed the little blighters off to Dotheboys Comp for the day after two months of summer hell and you think to yourself: “I fancy another couple of hours’ kip. No one in the office will miss me.”
That, at least, is the charitable explanation for what went through the minds of some senior government officials last Sunday morning in Dubai, the glitzy Middle East emirate best known for its tall buildings, shopping mall ski slopes and inebriated expats.
Sadly for those civil servants, they picked the wrong day to take the morning off. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, 67, the ruler of Dubai, also chose Sunday morning for unannounced visits to a series of government offices to check that customer service was being maintained at the level he demands.
And so it was that the old boy rocked up at 7.30am, the start of the working day, at the offices of Dubai municipality, the equivalent of the town hall, to find that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Mary Celeste.
Video footage of the visit is hysterical. It shows an increasingly irate Sheikh Mo walking from empty desk to empty desk, his brow growing more furrowed and his expression more thunderous as it becomes increasingly clear that while the captain is on the bridge, the vessel of state has no crew.
Now, even at the best of times, the ruler of Dubai smiles a lot less than you would expect of a bloke worth somewhere north of 10 billion quid. The only time he ever looks genuinely happy is in the company of his beloved horses (you’ve probably seen pictures of him in his top hat and tails, hobnobbing with the Queen at Royal Ascot).
So it would be fair to say that, upon discovering that the handsomely remunerated executives who are supposed to keep his city running like a purebred Arabian thoroughbred are sitting at home with their feet up watching daytime TV, he wasn’t best pleased.
The press, on the other hand, had a field day. In a country where local news is hard to come by (“New road from Shahama to Al Ain is 62 per cent complete”: you get the idea), this was a gift. One newspaper’s headline took the form of a question and answer:
Q. How many people work in Dubai government offices?
A. About half of them.
And then, when it looked as if the story couldn’t get any better, it did. The following day, Sheikh Mohammed announced that he was ordering nine officials at the municipality to take “early retirement” – a euphemism unfamiliar to Lord Sugar or Donald Trump, who would have used a more direct phrase.
And these were no low-ranking penpushers. Among those fired were the head of the legal department, the chief legal counsel, and no fewer than six assistant director generals (although so far no one has stopped to ask why a city with a population of 2.5 million needs six assistant director generals).
It is impossible to overstate the significance of this in the context of the Arab world: not so much that nine overpaid workshy layabouts have lost their jobs (that happens, quietly, all the time), but that they have been publicly named and shamed.
An expat friend of mine complains that if Sheikh Mohammed had really wanted to send a message he would have fired these nine senior executives without the massive pensions to which they are almost certainly still entitled, but that misses the point.
The concept of gaining or losing “face” is not unique to China: it has widespread traction in the Arab world, and these nine men have lost a lot more than their jobs. No amount of money will compensate them for the public humiliation they have suffered, nor the loss of status in their community.
There are two abiding myths about Dubai. One is that the city has no style, no class, no taste and about as much culture as the lid of a yoghurt pot. The other is that expats do all the significant work while Emirati locals collect massive government paycheques for sitting on their fat arses doing nothing.
Anyone who believes the former may wish to pay attention tonight (Wednesday August 31), when Placido Domingo headlines the opening gala concert at the stunning new Dubai Opera. And with one early morning raid, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has begun the process of dispelling the latter.
As the prominent Emirati social commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi observed: “Tomorrow, everyone will be at work on time.”
*The author is an executive at an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates