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Jobs for Emiratis: why the state can’t do it all

Lubna Qassim posted this on


Nations moving from good to great require not only excellent infrastructure, high GDP and a healthy employment environment, but also – and most important – a skilled national workforce. The mix is delicate and the challenge for the UAE is great. Legislative support, strong private-sector involvement and citizens who demand relevance from their education system are all vital.

The diversity of people, languages, cultures and beliefs in this country is both an opportunity and a challenge.  Diversity brings fresh ideas and new perspectives, but it must also be managed tactfully and sensitively. One of the strengths of the UAE workforce is its mixture of people from different backgrounds and ethnicity who live and work together, and who ought to learn from each other and add value to each other.

The UAE has managed to attract the world’s biggest blue-chip companies and institutions. Some have their headquarters here. But look inside their offices and you will hardly find a single UAE national employee. I wonder why?

A company is truly global when it has a diverse group of employees, but there are different ways to measure that. An organisation is often defined by the size and number of offices it has across different continents, but I believe that to be truly global it must integrate within its workforce people from each country in which it has a presence.

Emiratisation has been at the top of the agenda for some time and we must appreciate the financial resources and the immense time and effort the Government has invested in developing the national workforce: from building national colleges and universities to creating national vocational qualifications and occupational standards of competence, scholarships for UAE nationals to study abroad and numerous leadership and development initiatives – the list is endless.

So the question that arises is, what role do multinational companies in the private sector play, or intend to play, in building, developing and integrating the national workforce?

I do not want by any means to underestimate the scope of this challenge, and I know of many multinationals who have been working hard with the public sector to realise the Government’s vision. But this is more than a vision – it is something our economy needs.

Hiring Emirati nationals has both benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that they know the language and culture, and often have connections to local institutions or Government agencies that can be helpful to employers – and most important, they know how things are done in the local way. This in itself is a cutting advantage when doing business.

On the other hand, I recognise that some nationals may be unfamiliar with western business practices and are unable to communicate well in English, and therefore require further education and training. Moreover, a severe shortage of skilled labour often makes local recruiting difficult.

One way to resolve this challenge is for foreign companies to recruit nationals directly from local colleges and universities. While these institutions are a good source of entry-level staff, they may not fulfil companies’ needs for professionals experienced in management, finance, marketing and human resources. This is where a company’s commitment is put to the test: the seriousness of its investment in training nationals, developing them from a junior level and qualifying them to apply for senior managerial positions.

The challenge is complicated by the fact that Emirati nationals are relatively few in number: they constitute only 17.74 per cent of the workforce. According to the latest statistics, published at the end of last year, the Emirati workforce numbered about 250,000, and more than 38 per cent of the UAE national population is under the age of 15. In addition, most of the national workforce is concentrated in the public sector: 44 per cent of its employees are Emirati, according to figures released this week.

Foreign companies seeking to recruit qualified local employees must customarily offer better salary and benefits packages than those provided by local employers or the public sector. They must also offer other incentives, including opportunities for advancement and career development. Foreign employers must also overcome other disadvantages that local managers might perceive in working for non-UAE companies. These may include an absence of the type of personal relationships with peers and superiors that they would find in a local company, a foreign company’s weak reputation or image in the local economy, or even a company’s uncertain business prospects. In addition, a foreign company must convince its employees that it is in the UAE for the long haul, and is therefore willing to invest time and money in training its national employees.

With the impact of globalisation, the issues faced by countries in developing a national workforce are not new, but it is interesting to see how each country chooses to address the challenge of maximising the talent that it has at its disposal. It is now time for the private sector to commit firmly to this cause. It would be a rewarding investment. Multinationals must work hand in hand to build and serve in the development of the UAE’s most invaluable and irreplaceable asset – its national human capital.

As published in The National on 20 May 2009.
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