Sunday, August 7, 2011

Saudisation Through The Eyes Of A Civil Servant

With no serious accountability of the Saudi public sector, executives will always view a government firm as a cash cow

By Tariq A. Al Maeena

Samir, a Saudi, has been working with a national civil organisation that serves a large sector of the population in the kingdom. A chance encounter with this long time acquaintance last week brought forth revelations about the inner workings of this government organisation whose primary mandate is to serve the public.

Samir is retiring soon. And he is visibly relieved and elated. After 32 years of service in that particular company, he is counting the remaining days until he bids a final farewell to an organisation he has given his all. During our talk, I wondered whether there were any misgivings in all that joy.

"Oh yes, Tariq, there have been many, but they are no longer my concern. I am leaving and let those who remain attempt to sort out the mess we have become. I can no longer fight against an immovable brick wall of incompetence and that I have had to put up for many years."

When asked to elaborate, Samir continued, "I joined this organisation when it was vibrant and dynamic. Primarily foreigners, who in the capacity of advisers were not hesitant to recognise local talent and allow it to develop and flourish, steered this company. If you were good, you stood out and moved forward. And if you were not, then you were quickly shown the proverbial door.

"Back in the eighties the growing infrastructure of this country and the challenges we faced were of such magnitude that we all pitched in to put forth a quality service product. In the early nineties, things started to change. The expatriates were gradually replaced with Saudis, some from within and some who were appointed from outside the company. And it was then that the seeds of incompetence were sown.

"The Saudis who came in from outside at executive levels exercised their authority within the company as though they owned the outfit, and soon modified the company mission into what this organisation could do for them rather than the opposite. Public service was soon replaced by private greed as more and more, the profile and culture of this place became a temple of worship of our CEO's. Our monthly company newsletter began glorifying the activities of our CEO, while the increasing public discontent with our service in the press was quickly met with hollow denials. As we are a monopoly, the public had no other option but to take whatever was dished to them.

Personal gains

"Even conscientious employees were soon forced into a situation to accept this new form of disciple or else seek work elsewhere. Those who joined the bandwagon were quickly targeted for promotions, regardless of their incapability. Remember SAMAREC [oil company]? Well, we have taken nepotism and favouritism several steps upwards. And those of us who chose to make it a career here and expressed alarm and discontent at this avaricious trend were labelled as trouble-makers.

"Today, this place is reduced to what can I get out from this company, and not the other way around. What fruits can we harvest from it for our own personal gains! Forget the paying public. If they don't like it, tough luck. Let them go somewhere else. As long as the government keeps pouring money into our budget, do we really care about what the public thinks? And since there is no serious form of independent accountability of our public sector, our executives will always view this company as a cash cow, created for their own personal gains. This is how the corporate culture has changed over the past few years. And so if I have misgivings, it is about what could have been and what it is today."

"But Samir, why didn't you just pack it in and leave earlier as others had done," I inquired. "Why stay in an outfit that is obviously doomed to ineptitude? You are a bright man, and your services could have been picked up anywhere."

"Tariq, my training is very specialised. And from the feedback I got from the few other public sector companies who could have used my talents, the message I got was the same. Once on board, I had to hail the mighty chief and his inner circle. And turn my conscience off towards some of the unethical business practices. It's like Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. I am not made like that.

"Some years ago, we heard that several public sector companies including ours were going to be privatised soon. That gave me hope, as new investors would have quickly done away with this bureaucracy and greed, along with these blood-sucking mites. But our executives fought this concept through delaying tactics and false information that must have scared away a lot of investors. They simply did not want the cow to run out of milk. I will now seek greener pasture elsewhere, most likely in the private sector."

After wishing him luck and bidding Samir farewell, I wondered. Indeed with so many public sector organisations running inefficiently, I wonder how much milk off the cow these Ali Babas are going to steal before it would ever change.

-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 07/08/2011
-Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

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