Mystery Shopper

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Anyone unsure how the UAE's recently appointed prime minister would behave in his new federal position was reassured this week that he will devote the same energy to federal rule as he has shown in Dubai.

On February 27, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid made one of his first tours in the north of the country since he became premier and vice-president of the UAE on January 5. He stopped in Umm al-Qaiwain, one of the smallest and least-known emirates, and dropped in on a number of government departments - reportedly finding some in poor working order.

An unannounced visit to the Umm al-Qaiwain Department of Justice revealed that the top management was absent and piles of papers were allegedly cluttering hallways. At the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, it was reported that only three of six employees were present.

"Sheikh Mohammed was shocked to see that, as it does not reflect the country's progress and reputation and its leadership's determination to remain as a model of civilisation and progress," stated the account of the visit in Gulf News on February 28.

Sheikh Mohammed also met with the authorities at the police department, instructing them to accelerate construction on a new prison and extension of the police command headquarters.

Then, after a meeting with the teachers and children at al-Watan Primary School, Sheikh Mohammed immediately ordered the construction of a new school - promising to address teachers' grievances about resources and funding shortcomings.

Surprise, or "mystery shopper" visits - along with his rapid decision-making - have become trademarks of Sheikh Mohammed as he has guided Dubai to record economic growth.

In the process, a number of Dubai departments have learned the hard way about the repercussions of treating government jobs as an invitation to work reduced hours, with minimum productivity.

One of the reasons why Dubai boasts one of the Middle East's most dynamic economies is because Sheikh Mohammed is relentless in weeding out bureaucracy, inefficient operations and removing non-productive staff. This has made the UAE an increasingly attractive place for foreign investment, which doubled in 2005 to reach $18bn, according to an announcement by Sheikha Lubna, minister of economy, on February 27.

Sheikh Mohammed appears intent on making the whole UAE more attractive to investors by imposing the same high standards and efficiency in the northern emirates that he has demanded in Dubai. This can only be a good sign for the smaller emirates, which have not developed as quickly as their larger southern sisters.

While Dubai has carved out a niche for trade, tourism and real estate, Abu Dhabi has begun to invest its massive hydrocarbons wealth, which has been amplified by record oil prices. The northern emirates, however, have been largely left to fend for themselves, as little federal attention has been paid to economic development, aside from power and water projects.

Until now, there have been few problems with this uneven development. Emirates like Sharjah have benefited as Dubai has slowly pushed out northwards many of its lower paid workers, as rents continue to rise. Recently, this has begun to price out many in the middle class as well.

Some evidence of this is that Sharjah recently reported a record year in issuing trade licences. The total number of these was 29.1% higher in 2005 than in 2004, according to the UAE Department of Economic Development.

At the same time, the Emirates Road, the major highway in the interior, now stretches all the way from Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah, meaning that Dubai is now accessible from points north. With greater access businesses are taking a second look at a number of opportunities in real estate, tourism and industry.

The spill-over economy from Dubai has indirectly helped, but as Sheikh Mohammed's shake-up proves, there is a lot more work that needs to be done to improve local government.

One problem is that government offices are still bloated from offering jobs to UAE citizens. Traditionally, the government was the place that all nationals looked for employment, with jobs created to accommodate the dated, but still entrenched wasta system, where getting jobs depended less on credentials and more on who you knew.

This problem still occurs in Dubai - though the tiny numbers of UAE nationals living there make it less of an issue. In the northern emirates, where far greater percentages of locals live and work, the concerns are more pronounced.

This is an issue that will only gain momentum in the coming years. With 25% of the population under the age of 15, the Emirates are gearing themselves up for a massive employment push in the coming years. Jobs need to be created in each emirate to absorb these growing numbers, and that will only be done by enticing more foreign companies to set up shop.

Also needing attention is the growing gap between the rich and poor emirates. As Dubai and Abu Dhabi look to corner the market on luxury living, the five northern emirates need to keep pace. The financial and cultural disparities - caused by a steady influx of expatriates - need to be addressed or the UAE might find some unwanted social problems a few years down the road.

Umm al-Qaiwain most likely did not enjoy having its shortcomings splashed over the papers, especially since the other emirates suffer from similar problems. In the long run, however, publicly disclosing the flaws restricting efficient government will help iron out some bureaucratic wrinkles, and better bind the emirates together.

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