What did Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, mean when he told a packed audience at the first Government Summit in Dubai yesterday that "I want the government to be like hotels offering hospitality and like airlines operating 24 hours"? The vision Sheikh Mohammed was outlining went beyond the plans for citizens to have swift access to government services. At root, this was a vision of how government should be: quick, clean and responsive.
Good governance and clear communications between rulers and citizens has been a consistent theme in the discussions surrounding the Arab Spring. The Arab republics that were buffeted by uprisings were all ones in which the citizens could barely express their grievances and in which there were not open, responsive institutions. Speaking yesterday, Sheikh Mohammed reminded his audience of a warning he gave as far back as 2004 to Arab leaders, that they should change or risk being changed.
Sheikh Mohammed was sharing his future vision of where the UAE needed to be. One key, he emphasised, was communication - not from the rulers to the people, but the other way around. The vision he announced of citizens being able to complete any government transaction through a handheld device was part of his plan for how the UAE should be run. As Sheikh Mohammed put it: "Our role is not to govern to rule the people but to govern to serve the people".
As part of this, he talked about the future of the UAE economy, saying the basis of sustaining growth could be summed up in three words: enabling, educating and Emiratisation. There was also a wry joke, as he warned men that "women word hard and achieve more, they have a bright future. We have plans for women, and the men should watch out, for the women will take their positions."
Sheikh Mohammed's comments came during a two-hour session, during which he answered questions from the audience and ranged widely over his private thoughts and plans. The question and answer session was not official government policy, but more of an exercise in openness for the UAE's citizens, a way of conveying, in an informal way, the direction the prime minister believes the country should be headed. As an exercise in openness, the speech was welcome, a way of demonstrating communication from the leadership at the same time as announcing ways of citizens communicating with the government.