How will Emiratization succeed?

Shifa Salem, an Emirati pursuing her Masters in Educational Leadership at Zayed University, is extremely ambitious, has high  aspirations, and wants to develop her professional career. But when asked if she would work in the public sector or the private sector, her response is immediate.

“The public sector,” she says, arguing that working for the government offers better pay and job security.

But what if a private sector role is more tailored to Salem’s qualifications, and will give her a chance to achieve her dreams better?

“If I am stable in my financial status, and I find something that will really develop my career path in the private sector, then I might go for it,” she says.

Salem’s opinion, mirrored by many other young Emiratis like her, is one of the reasons that the government’s emiratization program has still not significantly boosted the number of UAE nationals entering the private sector. According to recent figures, 80 percent of the UAE nationals work in public sector. The reasons for this are obvious: the salaries are better (the UAE cabinet recently granted a 70 percent pay rise for nationals working in the federal government), the hours are usually shorter, and the jobs are secure.

An estimated 12 percent of the Emiratis are unemployed, according to the International Council on Security and Development. A primary reason for this is that UAE nationals tend to pursue employment in the public sector, rather than the more diverse private sector.

“They know that they will have a chance in the public sector,” says Salem. “I think they have hope, and they are given hope. I think that as an Emirati, the message that I get is that there is a space for me in the governmental sector.”

Salem points out that Emiratis who are choosy about finding a particular kind of job could face a long search - but those who broaden their criteria have many jobs to choose from.

In fact in May last year, the Sharjah Public Transport Corporation (SPTC) said [1] that despite adopting emiratization, the body was unable to hire Emiratis as taxi drivers in the city. “We admit this whole campaign was a complete failure,” Mohammed al-Shamsi, the chairman of the board of directors of the SPTC, told the Sharjah Consultative Council at the time. According to him, the SPTC has received only one enquiry from a national for a driver’s position since it launched the emiratization process almost five years ago.

“He called in the evening saying that he wanted a job as a driver, and in the morning, we called him back - he said he didn’t want the job anymore,” al-Shamsi said. “We asked him why and if he had got another job - he said he was a national and was content to remain unemployed if he didn’t get a decent job as a national.”

The government has been trying its best to push private companies to hire Emiratis. For instance, firms with more than 100 employees have to allocate a quota of positions for locals. Last year, the government also announced that Emiratis cannot be fired from private companies unless they are accused of “serious misconduct, including, among other reasons, absenteeism, theft or drunkenness.”

However, while these factors have obviously not been able to tempt too many Emiratis into the private sector, they have also led to weariness among the private sector employers. Most of them prefer hiring expatriates, and are not aggressively promoting the opportunities that they have to the locals, according to Paul Dyer, fellow and program director at the Dubai School of Government.

“If I am a private sector employer in the Gulf, when I hire somebody from abroad, what do I get? I get a pretty good education depending on where they are from, I get a relatively low wage… Basically, I get really good skills, for much less than the reservation wage for a national,” Dyer says.

“Also, because [expatriates'] work permits are tied to my sponsorship, they have no mobility. And so they don’t have a lot of ability to push me in terms of promotions and salary increases; because they are tied to me, they don’t really have the free choice to go and be competitive. So that keeps their costs low,” he explains. Also, while it is possible to dismiss an expatriate worker anytime, it has become very hard to fire an Emirati for being unproductive, thanks to the new legislation.

“And then you have illegal activity such as keeping [expatriates'] passports, and you really get into a situation where you have a lot of control over foreign workers, which you don’t have over the nationals,” Dyer explains.

Another factor that gives expatriates an edge over the locals is their exposure to the requirements of the labor market.

“One thing I have really noticed is that there is not a lot of job or labor market information available to your average Arab youth,” says Dyer.

“When they think about what they want to do when they grow up, they turn to the family, they turn to what they know. There is not a lot of information out there for them to consume about other choices,” he says.

Salem agrees. There is no career education in the country to guide students, she says. “The Emirati students need the support to tell them where their strengths are. So they know how to use them,’ she says. It’s because of the lack of appropriate guidance that they are not able to find labor opportunities, she says. “But if they know how to employ their abilities, then I am sure they can do well.”

Education is a major factor. Currently, many students from the region are sponsored by the government to study in international universities. However, when they return, they also concentrate on positions in the public sector, rather than the private sector.

Hugh Lauder, a professor in the Department of Education at the UK-based University of Bath, says that improving local research facilities could encourage those returning to the UAE to pursue careers in academia. “You want these people to be productive when they come back. So if you have a view, a long term strategic plan to step up particular leading edge areas of research and development, then, they are not going to go into the public sector in the normal sense,” he explains.

But education alone is not enough to do the trick, insists Salem. The government will have to introduce more laws to make the private sector as lucrative as the public sector to the Emiratis, she says. Originally published by Aarti Nagraj In Cover Story, Special report,

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