Britain needs a competitiveness shake-up

The powers that be should up their energy so that the UK does not find itself lagging behind other nations

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
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I love England. Always have and always will. I am never happier than when there is a carpet of snow covering the garden and fields surrounding my country home or while just being out for a stroll with friends along the lush green banks of the Thames watching the swans. Peace, perfect peace!

Great Britain for me is the pinnacle of Western democracies; one of few places on earth where citizens of all backgrounds, races and colours enjoy equal opportunities and fair treatment and where corruption is the exception rather than the rule.

Some of the leaders I admire most are British; most notably Sir Winston Churchill, Lady Margaret Thatcher and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who deserves everyone’s respect for the dignified way she conducts herself. These and many others, including scientists, explorers, inventors, philosophers, artists, writers and entrepreneurs, have made this island nation great. However, it hurts me to say that other countries are surpassing Britain by leaps and bounds in many areas.

This summer, for instance, I have noticed a trend permeating almost every profession, which has caused me endless inconvenience – and I am certain that many Britons will sympathize with my frustrations. Everything I needed done, took far longer than it should.


The simplest things, which can be achieved within a day or two in my home country, the United Arab Emirates, are invariably an uphill struggle straining my patience. This does not bode well for a country on the brink of exiting the European single market with the aim of opening-up new markets worldwide and gaining a competitive edge.

For example, it took me a week just to arrange an eye test and if that was not bad enough, I was told to come back for the results in two weeks! I have heard so many horror stories from friends about the inefficiencies of the National Health Service (NHS), which not so long ago was considered among the best in the world.

The powers that be should up their energy so that the UK does not find itself lagging behind other nations

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

A ‘dirty wards’ scandal broke some years ago over a report stating more than 700,000 patients annually picked up lethal infections due to unhygienic conditions in hospitals. There have been many accusations that hospitals have ageism policies when it comes to offering life-saving operations and specialist care to the elderly. And due to a shortage in funds, last year, the NHS withdrew 25 treatment drugs for cancer.

People have to be assessed by their GP who used to allocate no more than ten minutes per patient before this rule was axed in 2013. They are then referred to a specialist, in cases that require so, and frequently have to wait a few months to get an appointment. There are also long waiting lists for non-life-threatening operations.

Emergency urgency?

I will give you an example of something I witnessed first-hand. My friend had an emergency, so I drove with him to the nearest hospital, which was a university hospital not far away. When we got there we discovered that the Accident & Emergency room was closed. The hospital told us that they could arrange for an ambulance to take us to another hospital, to which we agreed. However, the ambulance took 30 minutes to reach us, and a further 45 minutes to arrive at our destination, plus waiting time to see a health professional. This was an unacceptable lapse of time.

Returning to more mundane aspects, my business communications have been negatively affected during my stay because I am without access to the internet at home. Again, I am told to wait up to a week to get it restored. I am not surprised because in the past whenever I have wanted an electrician, a plumber or carpenter they always say they will come “next week”; never today, tomorrow or even this week.

And when they do arrive, they glance at the problem, have a cup of tea, and leave saying they will return to do the actual job at hand. Some do; others do not bother or turn up after I have returned to Dubai. They make you feel as though they are doing you a huge favor coming at all and then charge astronomical prices for the time spent.

Frankly, I think twice about buying furniture in the UK these days. It is almost quicker to get things flown over from the Emirates. I recently came across a chair I liked and made the mistake of buying it only to be informed that the shop required three weeks to deliver. Why three weeks? Is it that inundated with orders or do delivery men have to carry it on their shoulders all the way to my home? The assistant was unable to give me a reasonable explanation.

Service culture

The service culture was very different when I bought my house decades ago; I did not have to jump through hoops to get it renovated to a high standard. I do not understand when or why this change came about – and more to the point, why the British public puts up with such shoddy service and treatment. I understand that while many Britons are stereotypically known to grumble all the time, many also tend to avoid open confrontations even when they are in the right.

I notice this when I invite British friends to restaurants where they are either served poor quality food or something they did not order. Whereas we Arabs would complain loudly and send it back to the kitchen, they tell themselves ‘never mind’ and eat it anyway. The English are naturally polite, which is a good thing, but as long as they refrain from making justifiable complaints, stores and eateries have no incentive to up their standards.

Social equality is one thing, but it seems to me that some Britons resent their jobs and take little pride in their work whatever it may be. Perhaps the media and the cult of celebrity have heightened unreal expectations.

Not everyone can be a whizz-kid lawyer, a famous footballer or the winner of Britain’s Got Talent. Not everyone can win the lottery or star in a reality show. But if someone does not strive to do their utmost best when undertaking humbler -but just as worthy- roles, they will never reach the top.

In my young days, I felt privileged to have a job and worked long, hard hours to help support my family in various capacities before I started my own business on a shoestring budget in a two-roomed apartment without a typewriter or a telephone. We had no option. We did not look to the state to provide us with a living and we did not come up with a laundry list of excuses not to do this or that.

Our fathers and grandfathers would risk their lives diving for pearls or tending to their herds in temperatures upwards of 40 degrees centigrade. They had true grit and so did the Britons of their era who rolled up their sleeves and got the job done in factories, in the bowels of the earth digging for coal, or fighting in the trenches covered in mud.

This generation needs to get its act together. Bosses should demand efficient practices and teach their staff that customers should not be treated as numbers but as individuals each with differing requirements. By the same token, companies should invest in customer service personnel so that callers can get real human beings on the line rather than recorded messages or a call center on the other side of the planet.

I would ask my British readers to accept my advice as constructive criticism of a country I consider my second home. Daily life is tough enough without such stressful and unnecessary hiccups. There needs to be a sea change in attitudes and a focus on good practices else the “Great” in Britain will only be mentioned in historical archives. The developing world is forging ahead. The powers that be should up their energy so that the UK does not find itself lagging behind other nations.

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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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