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RetroSaudi: The Joys and Perils of the Deskbound

February 7, 2018

Debate on Bureaucracy, Arab News, Jeddah c1987

It’s time to return to the RetroSaudi archives. This time the spotlight shines on Saudi Arabia’s bureaucrats. But first, a modicum of context.

Government bureaucracies appear to be under attack both in the US and Britain, though for different reasons. In the US, government workers are disgruntled at hiring freezes and at the scrapping of regulations that they perceive to be beneficial to the country, if not to the interests of Donald Trump’s corporate supporters.

In my country, supporters of Brexit are taking pot-shots at the civil service for allegedly resisting attempts to portray post-Brexit Britain as paradise. No wonder government workers in both countries are feeling a little insecure right now.

In Saudi Arabia, the challenges are different. Not so much a problem of bias. In an autocratic system, civil servants do and say what the government asks, or face the consequences.  More a matter of bloat. 70% of Saudis in employment work for the government. If that percentage was replicated in the UK, we would have 21 million public servants out of a total working population of around 30 million. The actual number is around 6 million.

So if they are to transform their economy into one that looks like those of the West, you could say that the Saudis have two choices: cut down on the number of government employees, or increase the number of Saudis working in the private sector, which is heavily populated by foreign labour. In fact they are trying to do both, and have been doing so for the past thirty years, though with limited success.

Something has to give, because the huge numbers of public employees are a massive financial burden on a country struggling to balance the books in an era of low oil and gas prices

With those factors in mind, here’s what I wrote about one particular aspect of the Saudi bureaucracy thirty years ago – the watchdog whose job it was to keep the bureaucrats on the straight and narrow:

Then (1987)

Some are born bureaucrats, others have bureaucracy thrust upon them. In Saudi Arabia, the profession of pen-pusher is an honourable one. Indeed, the swelling ranks of the desk-bound have been instrumental in boosting many a government department’s sagging Saudisation numbers.

So the Saudis swamp their offices with pen-pushers in order to boost the percentage of native employees to an acceptable level. But what to do with the throngs of workers with grand job titles and few responsibilities?

A clue lies in the fact that security passes at airports require a huge number of signatures for approval, and that forms these days come in quintuple sets. Upon each signature and each form, a job depends. Another reason for the multiplicity of forms and approval levels is that the bureaucracy doesn’t trust itself. Delegation is definitely not the norm.

A Public Control Board answerable exclusively and directly to the King, exists primarily to scare the living daylights out of the bureaucrats, and thereby curb some of the worst excesses of the subjects of its attention: waste, corruption and failure to adhere to procedures. In theory anyway.

It’s staffed by hungry investigators, many of them other Arab countries, including Egypt and Jordan, whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance of the process of government. It spends millions of riyals inquiring into discrepancies in ministry accounts as minuscule as ten riyals. So deep and detailed is their probing that those who are targeted fear not only for their reputations, but those of their great-grandfathers. No stone is left unturned, except those that their masters prefer to lie undisturbed.

The result of these orgies of paper-chasing is not that corruption has been stamped out. That continues no more and no less. Major acts of malfeasance that could embarrass the wrong people are simply ignored or covered up. The Control Board has created cells in every department, whose main mission is to produce and store warehouses full of documents in preparation for the moment when it strikes like a scorpion lurking in the dust.

Since the blame for any discrepancies is usually, whenever feasible, shifted on to the broad shoulders of a foreign contractor, the contractor, not the bureaucrat ends up getting penalised, which the Control Board considers a satisfactory result. It isn’t of course, because most contractors factor such penalties into their original prices. With the result that in most cases the government is paying way more than it needs to.

Now (2018)

I was perhaps a little unkind about the work of what is now known as the Control and Investigation Board. Since the 80s they have done some important work, not least in bringing to justice some of those responsible for the shoddy civil engineering projects that contributed towards the catastrophic flooding of Jeddah in 2009.

That said, the warehouses full of paper diligently collected for fear of the watchdog’s scrutiny will have come in pretty useful last year, when Crown Prince Mohammed was preparing for his round-up of family members and eminent businessmen accused of siphoning off funds from government contracts over an extended period. The scorpion struck, but not where everybody expected.

As for the bureaucrats, no doubt they will still be quaking in their boots, not so much because of the bean counters scrutinising petty transactions, but for fear of an early morning visit from the Crown Prince who, like Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, has acquired a reputation for surprise visits to government offices at times when no self-respecting civil servant would dream of being present. At 9am, for example.

The civil service has continued to grow since 1987, but two factors have slowed the hiring. First, more services are on-line, so less bureaucrats are required to service the lines of supplicants outside ministry offices. Second, the government has realised that it can no longer fund legions of civil servants with nothing to do all day except play with their smart phones.

So there have been concerted efforts to diversify the economy and encourage a more vigorous private sector that will hire more young Saudis, including women. Not an easy task when you take into account the natural inclination of business owners to hire large numbers of foreign staff who cost far less than it takes to provide young Saudis with a living wage.

The bureaucrats have a role to play in sorting out the conundrum of how to get the youth into work without damaging the competitiveness of the businesses they want to encourage. The tactics in recent years have been some carrots (subsidies for employment and training) and plenty of stick (less visas for foreign workers, levies on employment of foreigners, higher visa fees and wholesale deportation of illegal workers). All of which results – at least for the Ministry of Labor and its associated agencies – in more work for the working man (and occasionally, woman) to do.

The joys of being a bureaucrat continue to endure. Shorter working hours than in the private sector, which gives them plenty of time to run small businesses on the side. Social status and perceived job stability, which make it easier for them to marry their sons and daughters into other respectable families.

But as Mohammed bin Salman and his young western-educated cohorts tighten their grip on the mechanisms of government, the days of the cushy number might be coming to an end. Which, for many civil servants, might be no bad thing.

After all, what’s the point of spending the majority of your working life bored out of your skull?.

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