People in the Gulf can be infuriatingly bad timekeepers. A key cause is the fact that the region never industrialized, meaning that the stakes for punctuality have always been relatively low. Among the many benefits that the economic visions can confer is an improvement in people’s respect for appointments.
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I grew up in the UK and moved to the US after my undergraduate degree. In both countries, save for some isolated exceptions like house parties, people show up on time. Whether it is the workplace, school, or social gatherings, people are socialized from a young age to treat showing up on time as a desirable act. This is both because it contributes to productive interactions, and as a way of respecting the other parties.
As I grew older, and my trips back home to the Gulf increased in frequency, I became more cognizant of people’s laxity when it came to appointments. In many cases, such as meeting up with friends in a restaurant where a table had been reserved, or on a football field that we had booked, the tardiness was enough to make my blood boil: tables were lost, and minutes on the pitch were gone, for no discernible reason beyond a lack of respect for one’s peers.
In fact, in many barbers and beauty salons in the region, people are so disinterested in adhering to appointments that the service provider has switched entirely to a first-come, first-served system of delivery. This is a horrible waste of everyone’s time.
I was fortunate enough to travel to many countries, and to interact with people from many cultures, so I started to pick up on international differences. Koreans and Japanese, along with North Europeans (especially Germans), were excellent timekeepers. Those bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain and Italy, were often late, and totally blasé about it, too. Arabs and Latin Americans were in a stiff competition for the wooden spoon, with both groups clearly regarding it as some sort of status symbol to show up late.
In fact, to this day in the Gulf, I see managers convene meetings at a certain time, and then purposefully delay the start of the rendezvous while they stare at the wall in their office alone just to convey a sense of superiority and power over their colleagues.
I think they are trying to say something like: “I am so busy and important that you will wait for me, and not the reverse”; but what comes across is something more like: “I have such low productivity and such an inflated sense of self-importance that I will engineer needless delays.”
While many factors contribute to determining the level of punctuality a society exhibits, one of them is undoubtedly the level of industrialization. Modern manufacturing involves complex value chains that require coordination between many different people – think of the hundreds who contribute directly or indirectly to producing one car. When elements of the chain fail to keep time, everyone’s work is disrupted, and productivity plummets. That’s why a country like Germany, with its proud history of high-quality manufacturing, treats tardiness with total scorn.
In contrast, your average homegrown Gulf value chain is relatively primitive, and involves a small number of people. If someone involved in the production of dates, sweets, traditional textiles, basket weaving, pearl diving, and so on is late, then the consequences are barely perceptible. Compare that to the millions of dollars of losses that a just-in-time Japanese production chain suffers when a truck is unexpectedly delayed at the border.
Now that the Gulf countries have their sights firmly set on developing more sophisticated manufacturing sectors, we will hopefully see a decline in the banal phenomenon that is tardiness. Bahrain wants to make vaccines, Saudi Arabia wants to make cars, and the UAE wants to make advanced military equipment. These sophisticated goods can only be produced profitably if people stick to appointments and show proper respect for their colleagues’ time. I will be especially happy if we can consign to the dustbin the legacy Gulf manager who is late to meetings because they want to show you who is boss.
The financial sector in the region offers cause for optimism, since it too places a premium on punctuality, and most of the people I know who work in that sector are excellent timekeepers. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them, but a growing manufacturing sector can hopefully rectify that.
There is a strong relationship between a nation’s living standards and its people’s punctuality, especially when you exclude countries that are rich due to natural resources. People in the Gulf need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask: “can we continue to be perpetually tardy if we want to join the club of industrialized, innovative countries? Or are we going to learn to show the urgency required for high productivity?”
The next 15 years will reveal lots.