Why None Succeeded to Reform Arab Bureaucracies

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During the first decade of this century, governments and organizations alike were occupied by several analysis processes to reevaluate their achievements and shortcomings, cope with the mainstream trends of people, and most importantly, create strategies for the future.

Developed countries and advanced organizations have skillfully utilized most of those novel technological advancements to promote their organizational structures, administrative regulations and bureaucracies to keep up with the modern impulse of their citizens. Besides upgrading and simplifying their standard procedures, governments equipped their bureaus and administration offices with the latest high-tech mobile capabilities, efficient networking devices, and other computerized equipment to free their bureaucratic systems from sluggishness, procrastination and corruption to improve the efficiency and functionality of their public services.

In the Middle East region, as in most developing countries, people, by and large, see bureaucracy as a mode of tiring procedures and defective conduct. For them, it points to an underhanded corrupted performance, which is based on lazy and inflexible applications of outdated administrative procedures.

In the Arab world, the core structures and procedures of Arab’s administrative and bureaucratic systems have been designed and patterned by the prolonged Ottoman rule, and were reshaped after the two world wars by the victorious French or British colonial power. In most cases, they are rigid structures that contain lots of ambiguity and impracticality, which opened the way for bias, favoritism, and corruption. Although most Arab governments have made several attempts to reform their bureaucracies; yet most of them failed to deliver the required change and development.

This actuality, however, has led the Arab public to wonder why most governments could not reform and modernize their bureaucratic system. While most people blame their political and governing system for such frustrating setback; other critics accuse their public servants of incompetence and corruption. So, why none succeeded to modernize Arab bureaucracies?

Actually, there are several diverse causes and reasons for that failure. Though there are some reasons, which are related to one particular Arab country or another,  they still share many of these reasons that led to this shortcoming.

The first and foremost shared reason is that only a few analysts and strategists reviewed the bureaucratic case from a societal and organizational culture perspective. Seeing that most public administrators and experts have underrated the effects of behavioral and social culture on the performance of public service employees.

The second reason is related to the adoption of “as is” theories and application of clichéd management systems disregarding the local wants and traditional track of each Arab society.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, a French humanist, and philosopher wrote:

“Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au delà”, which means, “there are truths on this side of the Pyrenees, which are falsehood on the other”.

In other words, what is good and right to some, could be bad and wrong to the others.

It is a proven fact that packaged management theories are not the correct solutions to reform government systems, bureaucracies or organizations. Hypothetically, applying the British bureaucratic system in France or USA, for example, would lead to catastrophic results though all are highly developed countries. Imposing electronic procedures and online-based applications on a country that has high computer illiteracy levels, would counteract the intended reform plan and creates chaos instead, for instance.

This actuality, however, is not to imply that old-fashioned ideas and concepts should be upheld unrevised. But, to rather say that the only way to achieve good results is to adapt and adjust the selected bureaucratic structure to fit the national culture. This, however, is because communities do not have the same social culture and equal levels of general knowledge, not to mention the levels of public awareness.

After World War II and the end of the decolonization process, the United Nations (UN) along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) jointly designed several development programs to combat poverty and create development, since four-fifths of world’s population then was living in poor countries. In essence, as most of these development programs were constructed on Western theories and organizational culture, the fact that there was no room for those impoverished countries to interject their national culture into these international development programs has changed the results. While, tens of billions of dollars were spent to facilitate the development of those poor countries; yet, the accomplished results are minimal.

National culture guides individuals and communities to adopt certain cultural principles, like honesty and conformity, to create a better society. Societal culture always influences the work practices of communities. It has a profound impact on the performance of people and productivity of organizations, public and private alike.

To that end, development strategists and experts have to take into consideration that the values, performance, and outcomes of any reform or development process of a particular bureaucracy would vary according to each national culture.

To all intents and purposes, the fact is that any government that seeks to ease up the life of its citizens has to develop a competent bureaucracy that can collectively deliver efficient public services.

To do that, it needs to have trouble-free procedures and good functional body of personnel that can operate in harmony with the national socioeconomic dynamics of the country, before taking any other step.



Mohammad S. Moussalli is a well-known Lebanese writer. He has a reputable journalistic experience, as commentary writer, with a renowned regional English daily newspaper and web-based gazette. He holds a long list of esteemed published articles, mostly centered on human rights, civil liberties, socioeconomic development and sociopolitical issues.

Mr. Moussalli is an independent management consultant with top executive management experience in general trading and contracting in the Middle East and Gulf region. He devises reorganization plans and provides advice on business planning, administration, operations, pay and benefit scales, and many other issues.

Mr. Moussalli blogs at http://middleeasttribune.wordpress.com




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  1. Mohammad, well stated and spot-on! Often, people look at bureaucratic models much the same way one looks at an engine part to the family car. If one has the necessary engine part, the correct tools, and the knowledge to disassemble and reassemble the component parts, the replacement “fix” is successful. However, just having the correct needed part will not get the vehicle to run again without the necessary supports (tools and knowledge to install the fix).

    Bureaucracies are much the same way… the easy part is finding a bureaucratic model capable of doing the job. Making the selected bureaucratic model fit the social structure it has to work cohesively with is the larger (real) problem.

    I would argue that most bureaucratic issues really center on installation problems, and if the right tools and knowledge are not available, to successfully install the bureaucratic model, you can actually find the attempted change to be counterproductive!

    Marvelous article!

  2. Will say sorry in advance my professor hat came on! Excellent article my friend.
    Where I teach at University (Humanities, Theology, Business and Master level work), I have one class that I am currently teaching a pre-grad course in project management. My focus is on holistic thinking rather than compartmentalization that has dominated most of the Western thinking – which is the core of all my course actually (thanks to the Greeks).
    From that sprung Modernity and now post modernity which is impacting all cultures. Modernity, which is based on this compartmentalization mind-set (worldview) ends up always creating in the end chaos. Modernity seeks to codify and classify people into ridged categories to control outcomes. Categories from taxation to education, the place from which one was birthed and by whom all, from a compartmental thinking (mind-set/world-view) never takes into consideration the whole not only of the individual’s potential for good but of cultures too.
    From a wholistic mindset: The core of all people and people groups are to seek that which provides opportunities to creatively – protect, express their hearts, and know that they can provide for their children and wife. Plus, that they have opportunities for their children to have a better future and much more. However, if you are classified in a caste system (as you know not a new thing for societies to do), those opportunities will never exists. Most cultures through the ages have sought control by using the caste systems, in fact I would take the position all culture have and currently still try.
    From the post-modernity mind-set, they state that we need to be so independent that chaos is preferred to order because of the categories that Modernity has imposed. But the humor of that is they group to protest and without their iPhone and iPod or Smartphones and Tablets using all the latest’s technologies which Modernity’s culture has invented, they wouldn’t know how to survive a week. The vary thing they protest they can’t live without.
    What work’s then? Ah the million or multi-trillion dollar question. In every culture through history when those in leadership (the few) are more removed from those that choose that leadership as in a republic (or are ruled by the king or president forever) those nations or empires fall. The more removed the leaders (leader) and bureaucratic levels of government increase results always in; higher taxes (after 40% plus of income is reached decline always follows – Laffer Curve), the higher the violence, speech is limited, education becomes only for the chosen, labor done by fewer or increased without a living wage, ownership of your work is lessened and then owned by the “state, kingdom or empire”, there are managed goals without understanding that actions done in one segment of society effects and affects all segments of society.
    The answer for all is what you stated in your insightful writing – “It is known that national culture directs individuals and communities to embrace certain cultural principles, like honesty, concordance and conformity, for the benefit of the wider society. Societal culture influences work practices and has a profound impact on the performance and productivity of public and private organizations. Based on that, development strategists and experts have to take into consideration the values, performances and outcomes of any reform or development process of a particular bureaucracy which would vary across cultures.” Globalization is not a new thing, ever since trade has existed we have had globalization, albeit slower but still one empire has impacted others through commerce, travel, cultural nuances’ and art.
    But how do we govern in the world of speed, man hasn’t changed yet from the ancient man really. Still, we find limited but insightful governance is ideal, all it takes is that one strong person or persons that bring momentous issues to the forefront and make a decision about them. Then have that decision either wreak havoc or bring life giving elements to a culture. What is sad but true, is that the weak are always forced to decide between alternatives they have not chosen themselves, when that strong man is evil especially. Indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: “the power of some needs the folly of others”(Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It is not that certain human capacities, intelligent aptitudes for instance, become diminutive or damaged, but rather that the surge of power makes such an overwhelming imprint that people are dispossessed of their free judgment, and give up trying to consider the new state of affairs for themselves and react to the power in front of them.
    Careful and thoughtful generational understanding needs to take place to bring transformation to any society. Most of the problems in the Middle East seem to stem from domination (Turkey 500 years), different types of colonization of managed affairs for 75 years plus periods of intrusions over the last 250 years and lastly but not the least evil men who are the “strongman” referred to earlier. For the balance of the world you just need to dig a little bit and your find their evil men “strongman” to understand their chaos that is bubbles up into our day.
    You can undo what has been done for a long time in a micro minute, but it has to start today by speaking up, education and risks. People have value, we have value and our children have value.. “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” ? Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is worth the price we may have to pay.
    My friend thank you again for your strong and insightful voice. Please forgive any writing errors – I do not have time (talking of speed) to edit carefully due to being gone on business travel. Much to catch up on especially my brides to do list!

    • A very insightful comment. It’s full of wisdom and morality.
      I liked this one: “What is sad but true, is that the weak are always forced to decide between alternatives they have not chosen themselves,…”.
      Wish you the best
      Thank you Stephen

  3. Quote: “Developed countries and advanced organizations have skillfully utilized most of those novel technological advancements to promote their organizational structures, administrative regulations and bureaucracies to keep up with the modern impulse of their citizens.”

    I think that you could also replace “citizens” with their “need to do more with less” as this improves the bottom line. You can also get there by firing people to afford their technological replacement.

    Nepotism runs strong inside most organizations. In Arab culture, isn’t nepotism for the clan ranked very high. Culture is one thing, family loyalties is another. Worthless relatives is an even bigger issue. One can’t make money when employing fools.

  4. Quote: “Imposing electronic procedures and online-based applications on a country that have high levels of computer illiteracy would counteract the intended reform and create chaos instead, and so on.”

    I’d dislike lumping all Muslims together, but I will as here is a thought, and I’ve borrowed a few quotes for a little extra oomph. There is disagreement whether madrasas ever became universities.

    Scholars like Arnold H. Green and Seyyed Hossein Nasr have argued that “…starting in the 10th century, some medieval Islamic madrasas indeed became universities.” The rebuttal is an argument that “… the European university has no parallel in the medieval Islamic world.

    Instead of a preference for the madrasas sectarian educational system, you mentioned that ‘… after WW2 four-fifths of the world’s population at that time was living in poor countries. Yet, after tens of billions of dollars were spent to develop those poor countries, only minimal results were been accomplished.”

    Why not rise the level of literacy by simply mandating another system of education. Inside the US, absent the objection of monotheist conservative views, the separation of Mosque and state really does make all the difference. The same can be said of Cathedrals and Synagogues.

    Arnold H. Green. “The History of Libraries in the Arab World: A Diffusionist Model”. Libraries & the Cultural Record 23 (4): 459.
    Hossein Nasr. Traditional Islam in the modern world. Taylor & Francis. p. 125.
    Toby Huff, Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, 2nd ed., Cambridge 2003, ISBN 0-521-52994-8, p. 179-185
    Daniel, Norman (1984). “Review of “The Rise of Colleges. Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West by George Makdisi””
    George Makdisi: “Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages”, Studia Islamica, No. 32 (1970), pp. 255-264

  5. Mohammad : You mentioned slavery through another means and how Arabs had been under the thumb of the British, French, and the Ottoman Turk. That’s a dismal track record. Prior to being under the thumb of the Pasha, what did Arab bureaucracies of the antiquities look like.

    I think the W?li was replaced by the Sultan, but to stay on point do you have any sources that discuss bureaucracies from ancient times? If so, I’d be interested if you shared them. Again, thanks for the excellent read.

    • Thank you Sean for your interest and comments.

      As for how “Arab bureaucracies of the antiquities look like”, the onset of bureaucracy was with the Omayyad reign after Islam. However, before that time traditional tribal dealings were the norms. In my view point, there was no similar to todays university, since madrasas were set to teach religion first and then sciences of that time. All were religious schools, seeing that religion was a mandatory science .

      I am in favor of keeping religion a matter of worship , not a life science, given the former is concerned more with people’s spiritual life while the latter is more about their earthly life–bearing in mind that both should produce good to humans.
      Yes secularization and democratization are the path to modernize any bureaucratic or political system, which should be considered soon.

      Thanks again

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