A disciplined society is a prosperous society

Egypt requires enforceable rules in public and private sectors if it is to evolve into a modern 21st century country

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

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Spain continues to be poked fun at over its manyana (tomorrow) work ethic, which remains a contributing factor towards the country’s sluggish economy. Latin Americans will often say they work to live rather than live to work. This may sound like a positive philosophy until workers begin getting laid-off, rates of unemployment burgeon and quality of life diminishes.

When Spanish singer Julio Iglesias was asked by a British television host to explain the meaning of manyana he said it translates to “maybe the job will be done tomorrow, maybe the next day, may be the day after that. Perhaps next week, next month or next year… who cares?”

Certain countries in the Mediterranean and within the Arab world are just as laid back; in some cases, even more so. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be countries with struggling economies. Those attitudes are often blamed on the warm weather but that excuse does not wash as efficiency, self-discipline and responsibility get rewarded in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries. Also, laxity at the workplace or arriving late for appointments are not tolerated.

The case of Egypt

This lackadaisical culture is prevalent in Egypt which is fighting to get back on its feet following four turbulent years. In many of his speeches, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has stressed on the need for Egyptians to roll up their sleeves and take their work seriously, adding that there are no quick fixes. “I cannot do it alone,” he says. In my experience, his plea has yet to be heeded.

Egypt requires enforceable rules in public and private sectors if it is to evolve into a modern 21st century country

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Egypt requires enforceable rules in public and private sectors if it is to evolve into a modern 21st century country able to provide for its fast growing population, currently standing at over 91 million. Egyptians are naturally entrepreneurial, from the man or woman selling corn-on-the-cob on the street corner to those pursuing innovative tech or service start-ups. The self-employed and owners of small businesses are ambitious; they work long hours and do what it takes.

The same cannot be said for employees irrespective of their status. During a recent visit to Cairo, I tried to get in touch with various managers and officials around 9 in the morning only to find they had not arrived at their desks. I visited one of the city’s best known and best located five-star hotels hoping to meet with the General Manager, but was told that he rarely shows up before 10 a.m.

Quite frankly, if he were employed at one of my own hotels he would not last five minutes. I expect to see my staff at their posts at 7.30 a.m. at the very latest just as I always am I was lucky that my parents taught me the value of getting up early to face the day’s challenges, a virtue that the Father of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum exemplified. He did not approve of people close to him staying in bed past 6 a.m.; he once ticked me off for having a sleepy sounding voice at 5 a.m.

Just as the word manyana was used by Spaniards with ease before Spain joined the EU, one of the words most commonly spoken by Egyptians, when their timekeeping or efficiency are questioned – usually accompanied with a grin – is malesh or ‘never mind’. Whether it is trivial error or a serious mistake, they will say malesh which can be really irritating to the person tearing out his hair because something he considers urgent has not been done - and even more so when it is followed up with bukra inshallah (tomorrow God willing) which is no guarantee that it will ever be done.

Culture of indiscipline

Some of the worst culprits are the bureaucrats; they know they have a job for life, unless they commit a serious crime, and have little incentive to shine. I am told it is not unusual for civil servants to disappear for hours, to find them asleep at their desks, peeling vegetables for dinner or puffing away under their own ‘no smoking’ sign affixed to a wall.

The culture of indiscipline is evident on the roads. Egypt’s Highway Code is every driver for himself. Cars, minibuses and tuk-tuks weave their way through the traffic, overtaking from all sides or reversing down busy roads. Driving without lights down highways at night is common and it is normal to see cars moving down a one-way street in the opposite direction. Hardly anyone bothers to wear a seat belt and you will not drive very far before seeing someone at the wheel cigarette in hand or holding a cell phone to his ear.

The roof-racks of taxis are seen carrying assorted furniture piled sky-high and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a motorbike go past carrying a man, his wife holding a baby, two young children and an elderly woman who was presumably their grandmother!

To be honest, there are other Arab states suffering from the same ailment to one extent or another. But Egypt, with an unemployment rate hovering around the 13 percent and thousands of university graduates trying to enter the job market each year, needs a shake-up before there is mass discontent.

The government and corporate employers need to get tough on rule-breakers. Children need to be taught virtues of self-discipline and commitment to country and career in schools. Only then, succeeding generations will get excited about building Egypt anew and feel proud of the small part they have played in making their homeland great again.

Government departments could hold workshops in colleges and youth community centers and air infomercials on television to get the message across that a disciplined society is a successful society and also to stress the personal benefits of self-control. Research published by the Journal of Personality found that “high self-control does make you happy”. Now that is a real selling point!

Many may believe that the Egyptian people may not be the most self-disciplined or organized on the planet but they have so many other attributes. They are among the most hospitable and are blessed with human warmth as well as the ability to joke about their troubles.

It is because I truly love Egypt and want so much to see it blossom that I feel the need to open the government’s eyes. A culture cannot be changed overnight but if Singapore and Hong Kong were able to exchange organized chaos for economic vibrancy, there is nothing that should prevent Egypt from doing the same.


Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group - one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf. Al Habtoor is renowned for his knowledge and views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Writing extensively on both local and international politics, he publishes regular articles in the media and has released a number of books. Al-Habtoor began his career as an employee of a local UAE construction firm and in 1970 established his own company, Al Habtoor Engineering. The UAE Federation, which united the seven emirates under the one flag for the first time, was founded in 1971 and this inspired him to undertake a series of innovative construction projects – all of which proved highly successful.

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