Mention the name Saudi Arabia to foreign or indeed local businessmen and visions of mindless bureaucracy hampering the smooth operation of business is conjured up. Maybe it is an unfair accusation, as there are good and a bad bureaucrat in every country, but the comparison with other Gulf Cooperation Council bureaucracies is not a flattering one for the Kingdom. The issue is too serious a matter to relegate to dinner parties, as an inefficient bureaucratic structure imposes severe limitations on economic development and hinders the unleashing of best individual efforts and entrepreneurships in all societies.
Too often bureaucrats are labeled with a bad name, and most people will start to list a long litany of complaints, real or imaginary, about how they suffer at the hand of bureaucracy and bureaucrats. Let me quickly add that this article is not in defense of bureaucracy or bureaucrats, but rather a viewpoint that, for societies to operate efficiently, we do need a measure of bureaucracy and effective bureaucrats. Economic development and growth calls for massive and sustained government and private sector cooperation, in a coordinated and regulated matter. The government, reflecting society’s wishes and priorities, sets the rules and these rules are executed and implemented by the bureaucrats. In theory everything is perfect — the rules are clear, and society knows what is expected from both parties, so that the private sector goes out and does what it does best — produce those goods and services that consumers require.
The rules of operation are also clear, with disputes settled through courts and other regulatory bodies to avoid interruptions in the economic development process. To ensure that worldwide rules are also adhered to; international bureaucracy sets norms and standards, as Saudi Arabia is finding out following its WTO accession. Currently, countries are going one step further by having what is in effect “invisible government”, whereby the public deal with government institutions and bureaucrats through “e-government” or an electronic form of communication.
The Internet revolution and communication access to information by many sectors of the population has made this e-government possible. The benefits are many — avoiding undue delays in applications, physical visits to government offices, arguments, frustrations and recriminations. The e-government checklists will reject applications if they do not complete all documentation requirements properly on the Internet. If the document is rejected then the ordinary public member has only himself to blame.
Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council are experimenting with this and the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, are leading the way in e-government. What is it that makes Dubai, Bahrain or Oman work? A super breed of bureaucrats ? The answer is patently a transparent regime of rules and regulations in all these countries, where both bureaucrats and the citizens know what to expect from each other as well as clear charters of duties and responsibilities that govern their relationships. It is the arbitrary decision making nature of the Saudi bureaucracy that maddens those who wish to do business in the Kingdom. The most junior bureaucrat is all-powerful and can seemingly obstruct the clearest directives and orders of the State.
The Kingdom is now planning the introduction of e-government in order to speed up bureaucratic procedures and improve economic efficiency and services. This has already been introduced in bill payments, visa and Iqama-residency fee applications, and by and large, it seems to work smoothly. The saving in man-hours can be enormous, leading to a more streamlined, effective and highly educated bureaucracy serving the public. Effective bureaucracy and e-services are also an incentive for the ordinary citizen to become more proficient at using modern technology in a confident manner.
The Saudi stock market trading is one of the most technological advanced in the world, with trades conducted on T+0 days i.e. on same day basis unlike many countries, even developed ones, which take 2 or 3 days for clearing. This was due to technology investment in the system, an efficient bureaucracy overseeing the market and an educational two-way process between all market participants. One cannot imagine a situation arising when the good old days of physical registration of share certificates would ever come back.
One particular area that could benefit immensely from e-government will be those industries dealing with exports and the cutting down of unnecessary documentation and processes. This is critical if Saudi Arabia is to benefit from WTO accession and opening up of new export markets. Gradually the processes can be extended to many more areas, bearing in mind security considerations. Such measures will also spur the need to educate the public in technology usage from an early age at school so they can be comfortable with the new vision of e-bureaucracy.
In Saudi Arabia it is the younger, more IT savvy and literate younger generation of both sexes that are setting the pace in cutting out bureaucratic hurdles in the way they conduct business and information flows. It is the older generation of bureaucrats that are fighting a rearguard action against globalization trends and who seem to fear the most in giving up some of their mythical self-acquired powers over ordinary citizen. Who knows, maybe one day younger Saudi generations will sit and listen to their elders, who will patiently explain that they really had to deal with live bureaucrats, and how much they missed standing in queues, only to be told, at the sudden whim of a bureaucrat, to go and bring yet one more mysterious document to complete the transaction. The young ones will listen in disbelief at such fairy tales.
— Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady is visiting associate professor, Finance and Economics, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.