I had the privilege of spending a full week meeting government clients in Oman, Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. Last time I had been there almost three years ago, and things have changed considerably since.
Dubai – in spite of having slowed down – now has a world-class metro, one of the most extraordinary examples of reclaimed land (the Palm) and the tallest tower in the world. Abu Dhabi has a wonderful F1 track, new waterfront developments and almost as much construction as I remember last time in Dubai. Also Bahrain has a top class F1 track, while the landscape in Qatar has changed enormously, giving it a personality and architectural beauty that is unsurpassed in the region. Oman gave me one of the most extraordinary hotel experiences that I can remember.
These countries are simply wonderful. Not just for what they have accomplished in disciplines like architecture and engineering, not just for the delicious food and warm hospitality, not just for the achievement in technology penetration and use witnessed by statistics, international rankings and awards, and not even for their deep and sometimes mysterious (for us westerners) traditions. What I like most is their willingness to be challenged, to accept that they may be wrong, their humility in recognizing that they have still a long and bendy road ahead of them in spite of their extraordinary achievements.
They are much straighter than many Europeans, and more articulated than many Americans. They exhibit a very elegant sense of humor in spite of our prejudices and will often answer questions that – on hindsight – may look inappropriate. They are polite and never arrogant, even when they could afford to be so.
Of course they have lots of money (although some have experienced what “debt” actually means) and are rather far from a western concept of democracy, being ruled by emirs, sultans or kings. However, I have had incredibly rich conversations about transparency, openness, and the use of technology to engage with people.
In all countries I asked to audiences how many of them use Facebook or LinkedIn, and the show of hands was comparable to what I would get in Western countries. They do understand the potential of social networks as well as the limitations of what government can do. They do not aim at banning or blocking, but are willing to learn how to use them.
Although each country is different in its own respect, and the traits above have different connotations, I was really happy with the depth, openness and honesty of almost all conversations.
What I find ironic is that, while most of them are eager to know about best practices in other countries and feel like followers, I believe that we’d better spend some time there and learn from them.
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