When high-ranking officials such as ministers reach the end of their government service in the West, they often transition to think tanks and civil society. Such organizations can make great use of these individuals’ abilities.
In the Gulf, the board of non-profits are usually bereft of these former elite policymakers, representing a massive, missed opportunity. Fortunately, righting the ship is easy once one appreciates the untapped energy waiting to be unleashed.
In principle, being a minister or the chief executive of a major government organization requires a lot of talent, meaning that anyone who gets the job on merit possesses considerable skills. Moreover, the experience gained by performing such an important job usually enhances one’s pre-existing abilities.
Perhaps more importantly, being a high-ranking government official provides one with an exceptional network. Rubbing shoulders with fellow elites means getting their mobile numbers and personal email addresses, as well as the opportunity to generate mutual affinity that lasts even when people move on. Notably, these networks are international, too, equipping high-ranking government officials with a formidable locus of influence.
Accordingly, when these officials’ government service inevitably draws to a close, in Western countries, they are quickly snapped up by the research and civil society sectors. These organizations are cognizant of the skills and networks that former officials bring to the table.
Since former ministers and ambassadors are either too old or too expensive to employ fulltime, they are usually given board seats. Their job is to offer strategic insights drawn from their extensive experience, as well as to leverage their networks in the service of their new organization: securing donors, inviting fellow elites to speak at conferences, or simply helping paperwork move through the government bureaucracy more smoothly.
They will often be seen on the panels of events, too, or giving keynote addresses, imparting their wisdom before a large audience. Most of these services are rendered pro bono, or for a modest fee, since the desire to serve the public via a non-profit organization is a powerful motivator.
In the Gulf, the frequency of such a transition is much lower than we see in the West. The boards of think tanks and civil society organizations are full of current officials, and so too are the ranks of speakers in the events that they organize. At first sight, this seems preferable: why have a former minister of finance as your chairperson when you can have a current one? However, there are two drawbacks with this approach.
First, by focusing on currently service officials, think tanks and civil society organizations inevitably must descend the corporate ladder by a few rungs, since the highest echelons are sometimes too busy. Thus, while a non-profit open to former officials can quite easily secure the services of a former minister, ones insisting on currently serving officials might be forced to settle for an undersecretary or even lower. In certain circumstances, that means a weaker professional network, or lower levels of accumulated experience compared to a retired minister.
Second, even if an elite politician can be persuaded to serve, the extreme demands on their time limit the contribution that they can meaningfully make. For example, when a civil society organization wants to build a new headquarters, it needs the board to review the plans and to help fundraise. Both are time-consuming activities that are ill-suited to a currently serving minister. In contrast, a retired minister usually has enough time on their hands to perform these tasks well.
At the societal level, therefore, it makes sense for the Gulf countries to take a more balanced approach to benefiting from elite human resources. Rather than requiring their existing senior officials to juggle a million balls, and leaving their former ones idle, there should be an effort to make greater use of the talents that retired ministers and ambassadors offer.
While there are many reasons for the prevailing underutilization of retired government officials in the Gulf, one of them is certainly cultural. Regular people have an unhealthy fixation on a person’s current title as a measure of their worth, with the tacit assumption that when a person loses their title, they immediately join the professional scrapheap.
This kind of attitude is self-enforcing, as a minister who is cruelly scorned by their professional network upon retirement will naturally begin to question their self-worth, and not bother taking the initiative when vacancies appear on the board seats of non-profits.
The causation runs in the other direction, too: some Gulf elites develop an unhealthy obsession with office despite their advancing years and consider a board seat on an environmental civil society organization as beneath them. Whichever side is at fault, all of society pays the prices for its inability to put its human resources to use optimally.
The English American philosopher Thomas Paine once remarked that: “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” The Gulf countries possess an abundance of enlightened minds staring blankly at the wall, wistfully wondering when their next chance to contribute might come. The region’s civil society organizations should seize the opportunity before them and put these willing hands to work.