Dubai: Sheikh Mohammed's missing minions

Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, inspects an empty office

Early on Sunday morning – the start of the working week in Dubai – Sheikh Mohammed, the Gulf emirate's ruler, made an unexpected tour of government offices and found some of them deserted. On Monday, the sheikh issued a decree announcing the immediate "retirement" of nine senior officials employed by Dubai Municipality.

In his announcement, Sheikh Mohammed politely thanked the departing officials for their "efforts" and wished them "success in their future endeavours" but Dubai residents soon drew the obvious conclusion: that the mass retirements on Monday were the result of empty office-chairs on Sunday.

The sheikh's tour, which included Dubai Economic Department, Dubai Land Department, and Dubai airport as well as Dubai Municipality, was filmed and videos were later posted on the internet by the Dubai Media Office. One showed him inspecting an apparently unoccupied office (though two computers on the desk were switched on). 

Sheikh Mohammed has a history of making surprise early-morning visits in order to keep officials on their toes but it seems that some of them were off guard on Sunday because they thought he would be touring Dubai's schools.

While the sheikh's spot checks have been generally been greeted with approval by the public, officials who don't turn up at the office on time are only one part of the problem: there are also questions about what they do once in the office. As a commenter on one Emirati website put it:

"What about the ones who are there but are too busy picking their noses, chatting or playing on their phones to help you and then go home two hours early?"

If the threat of snap inspections by the ruler himself is the only way of ensuring that officials turn up in the office there is clearly something more fundamentally wrong. 

One factor, no doubt, is the way government jobs are viewed in most of the Middle East – as a sinecure that brings status and a generous salary without making too many demands in terms of actual work. 

But these attitudes also result from the de-motivating effects of autocratic government, where there is little delegation of authority and officials have to wait for instructions from on high rather than being included in decision-making processes. 

Sheikh Mohammed's surprise visitations may be a sign of his own diligence but they are also a sign that the system he rules over isn't functioning properly.