Gulf states take shine off cushy govern­ment jobs

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Ahmed, a Qatari civil ser­vant, used to ar­rive at his of­fice at a govern­ment min­istry in Doha late in the morn­ing and leave for home af­ter lunch, col­lect­ing a monthly salary of 40,000 ri­als ($11,000) and a gen­er­ous hous­ing and travel al­lowance. But last month a govern­ment of­fi­cial made a sur­prise spot check on the min­istry’s of­fices and found dozens of em­ploy­ees ab­sent. “Punc­tu­al­ity is a duty,” said a let­ter Ahmed re­ceived from the min­is­ter’s of­fice. “Qatar ex­pects the best of its cit­i­zens.”

For a coun­try whose tiny pop­u­la­tion is the world’s wealth­i­est per capita and which sits upon its largest nat­u­ral gas re­serves, in­creas­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of its 90,000 pub­lic em­ploy­ees might seem like a need­less task. But it is part of a trend across the Gulf as economies there try to lessen the bur­den of costly pub­lic sec­tors. Gulf states have for decades used their en­ergy wealth to pro­vide mil­lions of cit­i­zens with cushy govern­ment jobs, part of a so­cial con­tract that re­wards ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment with em­ploy­ment for life.“

But high-pay­ing pub­lic sec­tor jobs that de­mand lit­tle of work­ers have led to bu­reau­cratic in­er­tia and an ab­sen­teeism cul­ture that gov­ern­ments turned a blind eye to dur­ing the Gulf’s boom years. In 2011 a Kuwait govern­ment re­port found that half the coun­try’s state em­ploy­ees were ab­sent from work be­tween Jan­uary and March, cost­ing the coun­try’s trea­sury more than KD 10.5 mil­lion ($35 mil­lion).

Since oil prices plunged in 2014, how­ever, Gulf monar­chies have curbed sub­si­dies and laid off staff as they try to trim bud­get deficits and build economies less re­liant on hy­dro­car­bons. In the wealthier Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) coun­tries of Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emi­rates, where pop­u­la­tions are small, more than 75 per­cent of em­ployed na­tion­als work in the pub­lic sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to the IMF. The ra­tio is also high in oil-gi­ant Saudi Ara­bia - which racked up a record bud­get deficit of nearly $100 bil­lion last year - while in Oman, about 50 per­cent of em­ployed na­tion­als work in the pub­lic sec­tor. Bahrain has the low­est pro­por­tion of na­tion­als work­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor, at 35 per­cent.

In one of the most dra­matic ef­forts to shake govern­ment agen­cies out of their slum­ber, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid Al Mak­toum, car­ried out an early morn­ing spot check on the city state’s man­age­ment in Au­gust, found empty desks, and sacked nine se­nior of­fi­cials. Pic­tures of Sheikh Mo­hammed wan­der­ing the sparsely pop­u­lated of­fices of the Land Depart­ment were widely pub­lished in lo­cal news­pa­pers.

Qatar, in an ap­par­ent ef­fort to cod­ify the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of govern­ment em­ploy­ees and get them work­ing harder, last month passed a law that raised pay for work­ers who have achieved higher lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and en­forced a merit-based pro­mo­tion scheme. The na­tion’s young emir has warned cit­i­zens that the state “can no longer pro­vide for ev­ery­thing” and lo­cal news­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­als mock lazy civil ser­vants re­ferred to jok­ingly by Qataris as “peo­ple of the couch”. Neigh­bor­ing Saudi Ara­bia in Septem­ber scaled back fi­nan­cial perks for pub­lic sec­tor em­ploy­ees in one of the most dras­tic mea­sures yet by the oil-rich king­dom to save money at a time of low oil prices. Lured by a gen­er­ous salary and his own of­fice over­look­ing the Ara­bian Gulf, 26-year-old Ahmed, who de­clined to give his sec­ond name, joined Qatar’s min­istry of trans­port last year af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Qatar Univer­sity. On his first day, Ahmed said, he was sur­prised to find col­leagues with­out clear re­spon­si­bil­i­ties car­ry­ing doc­u­ments from one of­fice to an­other. “Many work­ers, even man­agers, were en­gaged in watch­ing tele­vi­sion or sleep­ing,” he said.

One col­league ad­vised him to get to know the “tea boys” - Nepali waiters who de­liver tea to of­fices - so he could find out when his boss had left and do the same. Other skiv­ing tac­tics in­cluded leav­ing a jacket on the back of his chair so a ca­sual ob­server would as­sume he was first to ar­rive at the of­fice and pro­gram­ming emails to send them­selves in the af­ter­noon so man­agers thought he was still at work. But su­pe­ri­ors started to clamp down on those evad­ing work, Ahmed said, af­ter Sheikh Tamim bin Ha­mad Al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, called on Nov 1 for Qataris to move off so­cial wel­fare and “into ac­tion” in the face of low en­ergy prices.

Af­ter Arab spring protests in 2011, rich Gulf states spent bil­lions of dol­lars rais­ing salaries and in­vest­ing in sub­si­dies and in­fra­struc­ture. Wars and so­cial tur­moil spurred ef­forts in coun­tries like Saudi Ara­bia to boost em­ploy­ment of their cit­i­zens and crack down on il­le­gal hir­ing of foreign work­ers. But to­day aus­ter­ity is un­nerv­ing cit­i­zens for whom af­flu­ence and stel­lar growth are the norm. Re­forms are prov­ing sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cally con­se­quen­tial even - and there are fears that fur­ther cuts to sump­tu­ous wel­fare states could heighten pub­lic anger.

In May oil work­ers in Kuwait went on strike against a pro­posed over­haul of the pub­lic sec­tor pay­roll sys­tem. An elec­tion last month filled the coun­try’s par­lia­ment with op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers op­posed to wage cuts and taxes. Omani medics from state-funded col­leges in Novem­ber held a two-week strike af­ter their salaries were cut. End­ing the legacy of pub­lic sec­tors be­ing an engine of job cre­ation, an­a­lysts say, is vi­tal to avoid ris­ing un­em­ploy­ment in years ahead if oil rev­enues de­cline again and na­tion­als are still not work­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor. But Gulf youth may still ex­pect to be en­ti­tled to a share of the na­tional wealth whether in the form of pub­lic sec­tor jobs with high wages or breaks from fu­ture taxes. — Reuters

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