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Published on June 27, 2010 By PranayGupte In Current Events

Dubai leads the way in “soft infrastructure”


By Pranay Gupte

(Published in Khaleej Times, June 28, 2010)


By now it’s become a cliché that the United Arab Emirates – and Dubai, in particular – enjoy one of the best infrastructures anywhere in the world. As with many clichés, this one has the added value of being true.


“Infrastructure” typically includes roads, power grids, ports and airports, and telecommunications. Those of us who live in the UAE take it for granted that electricity will rarely, if ever, fail, or that roads will buckle under despite heavy traffic, or that the nation’s airports will be clogged on account of the growing number of flights.


But how many of us give thought to the nation’s “soft infrastructure”?


That’s because the term is seldom heard in everyday usage, even though it’s as relevant to our daily lives as the “hard infrastructure” of roads and power supply and bridges. The UAE’s leaders proudly – and rightfully so – talk about how a key to the country’s economic development has been its emphasis on focusing on a strong infrastructure. And more and more they underscore the importance and value of e-government.


In fact, His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, was a pioneer in the region of getting government offices to incorporate electronic communications and procedures in providing services to everyday people. Well before “e-government” became a fashionable concept around the world, Shaikh Mohammed would visit municipal offices and exhort them to transform their systems in order to provide services more speedily through electronic means; in the process, of course, these offices would be able to save on cumbersome paperwork.


His exhortations have clearly worked. Not long ago, when I went to obtain an “e-gate” card at the airport, I was astonished at being able to get one in less than five minutes. I expressed my surprise to the cheerful official behind the e-gate window, and his response was, “What did you expect? This is Dubai.”


This is Dubai indeed. A friend went by to register his vehicle, and got the deed done in less time than it takes to get a hamburger at a fast-food outlet. Another friend and her husband wanted to set up a graphics company in one of Dubai’s free zones, and their experience was similarly salutary. Still another friend found that her television system was malfunctioning: the provider sent someone to fix the problem within two hours.


These sorts of things ease the business of living and working in urban environments in the UAE, ordinarily considered stressful in most countries – especially developing nations. As a veteran journalist who has been to virtually all of the 192 member-states of the United Nations, I can speak from first-hand experience that there are very few societies that are capable of managing their “soft infrastructure” as well as the UAE. When I visited my hometown of New York a few days ago and discovered, to my dismay, that the electricity in my apartment had been inexplicably switched off, it took almost a day of haggling with the local power company to set matters right. I asked the official I was dealing with if she’d heard about the concept of “e-government,” and her somewhat puzzled response was, “What’s that?”


One wouldn’t have expected such a response in a sophisticated city like New York – which prides itself on the efficiency of its municipal services, notwithstanding the tough trade unions --  but I suspect that such puzzlement wouldn’t be uncommon in many developing countries either. These countries have often lacked visionary leadership and resources to introduce “e-government.” Moreover, the presence of corruption has frequently ensured that municipal leaders find it more advantageous to continue doing things the old fashioned way. Why bother with innovation, which could well eliminate the prospects of further lining one’s pocket?


The UAE’s ability to recognize that “soft infrastructure” necessitates the providing of appropriate public education, public health, and social-welfare safety nets, has fetched its residents remarkably superior living conditions. A recent World Bank study said, “All aspects of regulations, taxation and licensing are candidates for review to minimize cost, time and frustration for businesses, whilst maintaining appropriate necessary environmental and related standards.”


By these criteria, Dubai’s record is little short of outstanding. It is a record that development institutions such as the World Bank should be highlighting to the 135 emerging countries that constitute the cohort that’s long been known as the “third world.” It is a record that demonstrates that vigilance against corruption offers not only protection to everyday people, it also enhances everyday living conditions for everybody.


To put it another way, the emphasis placed by the UAE and Dubai on promoting the “soft infrastructure” shows foresight. Good governance is meant for both current and future generations. It wouldn’t be at all inappropriate to applaud this country for establishing the right set of priorities when it come to paying attention to the everyday needs of those who live and work here.


(Pranay Gupte, a veteran author and journalist, is with the Government of Dubai’s Media Office. This essay is written in his personal capacity, and does not reflect any official position.)





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