The reality of Arab bureaucracy and diplomacy

On the streets of the Arab world today, everyone from businessmen, students, journalists, politicians, academics and locals are talking about politics more than ever.

Particularly in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya that experienced unprecedented demonstrations resulting in the fall of their dictators, speaking about the state of political affairs of the country has become the most popular activity. Even when taking a taxi in these countries it is difficult to find a driver who doesn't talk about politics, diplomacy and bureaucracy.

Speaking freely was something indeed impossible for these people during the dictatorship era; however, one should ask again, “Why did these people demonstrate in the streets for days and nights and made sacrifices to topple their dictators?” Needless to say, they were fed up with the unsystematic nature of their bureaucracy, which led to decades of suffering for the people. One should remember that the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which occurred unexpectedly in the Arab world at the end of 2010, began with a Tunisian fruit vendor setting himself on fire to protest official mistreatment.

Returning to the beginning, people love speaking politics; however, it is now the era of “less talk, more action.”

When one speaks about the bureaucratic system in Arab countries, the basic things that come to mind are the early closing hours of governmental institutions, red tape, official mistreatment and so on.

However, after living in an Arab country, Kuwait, for 17 years, I can say that this common Arab attitude is based on social-cultural factors. The public sector working hours in Gulf Arab countries begin at 7 a.m. and finish at 12 p.m. Interesting thing is that the diplomatic missions of these countries which are based abroad follow the same rule. For instance, in Ankara it is almost impossible to find a single person working at the embassies of these countries after 2 p.m. When you take into account the working hours in Turkey, this situation sometimes creates trouble.

Indeed, social-cultural factors play an important role in Arab diplomacy as well. Each Arab country has its own specific character, local customs and traditions. For the foreign officials that travel to Arab countries, particularly to the ones that experienced Arab uprisings, could easily observe that there is no specific rule for meeting hours. Meetings can be postponed for hours later.

For instance, one interesting thing in Egypt is that there isn't an official time for anything; it is very possible to have a meeting with an official at any time of the day, most probably at very late hours.

The wave that began in Tunisia in 2010 had a domino effect on neighboring countries and resulted in the collapse of the bureaucratic systems in those countries.

Because the bureaucratic system collapsed in those Arab Spring countries, there is a huge disconnect between state institutions, which also creates a problem for foreigners who wish to carry out their work in that country.

While one gets a headache due to the lack of the bureaucratic order in those revolutionary countries, one also gets a kind of similar headache in the Gulf Arab countries, which didn't experience the Arab Spring, but for their strict bureaucratic rules. Also, the bureaucrats and diplomats of the North African countries, including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, are very keen to speak about the developments in their countries in the post-revolution era. However, it is impossible to see any bureaucrat or diplomat of a Gulf Arab country commenting to a foreigner about the situation in the region or in its country.

I should say that Arab bureaucracy does not suit today's bureaucratic system. Things in these countries are carried out more based on individual accounts. The Arab people want to see more active and effective bureaucratic institutions in their countries that meet their needs. There should be a change in the manner of rule. This change will be to the people's benefit, but it will also be in the interests of those countries' governments.

The Arab world is going through a different era and the dynamics of this world have begun to change. New governments emerge after the fall of decades-long dictatorships. The countries that didn't experience Arab Spring should also adapt to this changing situation. They should take steps to turn this wave in their favor. This becomes possible only if they address to the voices of the people.

As a daughter of an Arab mother, I am sharing the popular expression below to present Arab bureaucracies with sarcasm, without any intention to insult Arabs:

Japanese attitude toward work: "If one can do it, I can do it. If no one can do it, I must do it."

Arab attitude toward work: "Wallahi if one can do it, let him do it. If no one can do it, ya habibi how can I do it?"

This Arab attitude needs to be changed. Such criticisms should be voiced louder in order to change the irregularities in the Arab bureaucratic system and make them realize the new dynamics in the changing region.

Today's Zaman