While the United Arab Emirates has adopted a development vision based on a free-market economy and the promotion of the private sector, it also recognises the Government’s fundamental role in ensuring the well-being, happiness and self-improvement of citizens. The fact that the country embraces a free-market economy does not mean that the Government should forgo its responsibility of providing essential services such as healthcare, education and housing.
To ensure that these services are delivered, the Government needs to reform the way it functions. Otherwise, it cannot efficiently and effectively compete with the private sector. The Smart Government initiative was launched in 2013, by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. The primary aim of this initiative is to ensure the happiness of all UAE citizens. Sheikh Mohammed describes Smart Government as one that never sleeps (working 24 hours, 365 days a year), is as welcoming as a hotel, provides fast delivery and strong procedures, is innovative and adaptive, serves the citizens at any time and everywhere inside and outside the country, improves lives and responds to expectations.
We cannot separate the Smart Government initiative from Sheikh Mohammed's vision about the role of government in general. He reflected on this in 2015, writing in a column that "In this age of rapid change, those who lag behind become irrelevant in a heartbeat. Countries, whose governments grow old, face the same fate as outdated companies. Their choice is simple: innovate or become irrelevant." He concludes that when governments innovate, they set an example for society to innovate as well. Sheikh Mohammed invited government departments to adopt the best practices and mechanisms of the private sector. In other words, ministries need to be more entrepreneurial to stay up to date.
In response to the need for reform, Sheikh Mohammed launched the annual World Government Summit in Dubai in 2013, which brought together senior officials, experts, specialists and stakeholders interested in global government affairs. This is one of his numerous initiatives to develop Government work and benefit from international expertise. He has adopted further initiatives to advance the work of government departments and to transform them into effective and efficient institutions. Such efforts include the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation, the Government Creativity Lab, the Mohammed bin Rashid Government Excellence Award, and the Emirates Programme for Excellence in Government Services.
Achieving sustainable development depends not only on geographic location, abundance of natural and financial resources and demographic factors. It also depends on an environment conducive to development, which primarily consists of an effective government, a creative and smart administration, mechanisms that promote investment and entrepreneurship, and an advanced and sophisticated system of services covering all fields.
The UAE has been aware of these prerequisites since the time of the late Sheikh Zayed. Under the leadership of his successor, Sheikh Khalifa, the President, the country has become a pioneer in government reform in the Arab world, the region and beyond. Many countries have learned and benefitted from the country's experience in reform and have explored avenues of collaboration. The fact that the World Government Summit attracts such a large international attendance is evidence of this.
The Smart Government initiative, in addition to the other initiatives designed to build a modern effective government that efficiently adapts to surrounding changes, is part of the UAE vision for the future. In this context, the Government of the Future was announced in 2016 by Sheikh Mohammed. In October, the government underwent a reshuffle, introducing new ministry portfolios to consolidate the ways of dealing with future challenges, nominating a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, a Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and a Minister of State for Food Security. Sheikh Mohammed said that this reform would focus on "future skills, future sciences and future technology as we prepare for the [UAE] centenary to ensure a better future for our generations," adding that "we want the UAE to become the world's most prepared country for artificial intelligence."
The importance that the UAE has placed on reforming its Government and enhancing its role in the development process reflects an advanced development vision. This need for reform has been confirmed by international events and developments, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Subsequently, experts have called for an increase in government influence, recognising that it acts as a safety valve at the political, security, and economic levels. The UAE strategy in this regard is characterised by its balance and the provision of an environment that encourages competition between the government and the private sector. The country ensures that neither of the two prevails at the expense of the other and that each party fulfills its responsibilities, especially those that the other party cannot assume. Many developing countries, seeking to shift from a command economy to a free-market economy, face a serious problem of marginalising the role that the government plays in development. These countries contend that a command economy can cause economic distortions and disruptions that undermine national stability and security, especially when development goals are not fully achieved.
The UAE has adopted a strategy that promotes economic openness and an environment for the private sector to operate freely. The country has also reformed the functions of government so that it can compete with the private sector. These efforts – including the Smart Government and the other pioneering initiatives – all play their part in making the UAE unique.
Dr Jamal Al Suwaidi is the director general of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research