Helping Emiratis Succeed in the Private Sector

By ANGELA SHAH

DUBAI — Fatma al-Falasi’s excitement about her new job with a global chemical company evaporated by the end of her first day.

“I was underestimated and unappreciated,” she said. “I was there to fill a quota and I could see it in everyone’s faces.”

Ms. Falasi wanted to work in the private sector because the more multicultural environment, which she felt better reflected society at large, would allow her to gain experience and skills she could not get in a homogeneous Emirati government organization.

Instead, she was given make-work that “required no creativity or intelligence,” she recalled. She left the yearlong “Emirati Development Program” after five months and now works for a Dubai government entity.

“I always assumed I would fit in better in a multinational environment, but after that experience, and given the great work family I have now, I realized that is not true,” she said.

As many as 15 percent of Emiratis leave private-sector jobs because of cultural differences. Emiratis make up only about 20,000 of the total 3.8 million workers in the private sector in the U.A.E., according to the country’s Ministry of Labor.

“We have a lack of leaders in the region — we have managers, not leaders,” said Jasim Al Ali, director of human resources at the Department of Economic Development in Dubai. “There is no clear career path. This is the responsibility of the manager to explain to them exactly what they need to do” to progress at a company.

Encouraging citizens to not only enter, but to also thrive in the private sector is key for Gulf governments, whose populations are growing beyond the ability of the public-sector work force to accommodate. Saqr Ghobash, the U.A.E. minister of labor, said recently that integrating Emiratis into the private sector was a bigger challenge than the global economic crisis.

Emiratis, like their Gulf counterparts, have traditionally flocked to government jobs, which have higher salaries and lighter working hours. But with more than half of its population below the age of 30, the private sector must be a viable option. Currently, expatriates, who comprise nearly 90 percent of the U.A.E. population, fill the ranks in the private sector.

“The luxury of relying on cheap expatriate labor is fading as the demographic reality becomes clear,” said Farouk Soussa, chief economist for the Middle East at Citi. “It’s not sustainable. You can’t build your country based on guest labor. You need to employ your own people.”

While the Arab Spring has not brought regime change to Gulf countries, leaders here have nonetheless sought to quell any basis for discontent among their populations. Saudi Arabia last spring announced a $130 billion benefits package for its citizens, including new housing and jobs. Around the same time, U.A.E. leaders announced a $1.5 billion program to improve infrastructure projects in the poorer northern emirates, as well as $1.9 billion in housing loans for citizens.

Governments in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have also increased the amount of attention they give to Arabization programs, which are designed to require private-sector companies to hire local citizens. In recent months, Abu Dhabi has cut expatriates from the rolls of its government and quasi-government entities to create jobs for Emiratis.

Unemployment among Emiratis aged 15 to 24 is 23 percent, according to government figures.

This year, Saudi Arabia, which has the Gulf’s largest economy, announced the “Nitaqat” system, a hiring plan that would replace foreign workers with Saudis. It color-coded 300,000 local companies, each of which is required to employ a number of Saudi citizens based on size and industry. Only 4 million out of 20 million Saudis are employed, and more than half of those with jobs work in the public sector. Nearly 70 percent of Saudis are under age 30.

But these quota-based requirements simply require companies to take on employees who know they are largely token hires, Mr. Soussa said. Local citizens typically demand higher salaries than many expatriate counterparts, and some managers say some locals show little interest in actually working. “It’s not the best dynamic,” Mr. Soussa said.

Another factor working against these initiatives is economic history. An unfettered supply of low-cost labor has powered the robust growth enjoyed by Gulf economies.

But even if salaries were adjusted higher, it’s not simply a matter of substitution, placing an Emirati, Saudi or Kuwaiti in a job previously held by an expatriate. Because of education systems that still favor rote memorization over critical thinking and brainstorming, many potential job candidates lack the soft skills to be effective in today’s knowledge-based economy.

The students themselves know this. Only 19 percent of students surveyed said they felt their education was preparing them for the work place, according to a Booz survey in September of people aged 15 to 24 in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

Ginnie Carlier, a partner in Assurance and the MENA Diversity and Inclusiveness Leader at Ernst & Young in Dubai, in charge of diversity programs for the MENA region, said her firm tried to mitigate for the lack of experience or skills through a “sponsorship” program that pairs a national with a veteran employee.

“It’s such a young population, for many of them, this is their first job ever,” she said. “Instead of just throwing them into the work force,” a mentoring program “is an awesome opportunity to engage a sector of the work force that has never been engaged.”

The interaction also serves to help bridge cultural gaps that can hinder Gulf citizens’ progress, for example, a Muslim woman’s reluctance to attend team-bonding sessions during after-work hours when alcohol might be consumed. “It has to be someone from a different culture, so we can address the tension head on,” she added.

Mawya al-Qaissieh, a 25-year-old Emirati, left a job working with the Abu Dhabi ports to join a private marketing firm to “get more experience and see how the real world works.”

She said she was pleased to discover that her work hours and compensation at the firm were on par with those in the public sector. And a bonus, she added, is what she is learning and experiencing: working in a multicultural environment, and developing critical thinking and socialization skills. “I would not have had this opportunity at the ports,” she said.

Aware of stereotypes that say Emiratis are lazy and do not actually do any work in their jobs, Ms. Qaissieh said she tackled any cultural differences head-on. Instead of feeling defensive about what she saw as ignorant perceptions or a lack of knowledge about Emirati culture, she said she learned to be an open-minded and assertive ambassador.

“You don’t get offended by other people’s questions,” she said. You can be proud “of your Emirati identity and still tolerate other backgrounds.”

Wiaam Bani Hashen is a human-relations executive who has worked for both public and private companies in the U.A.E. since the mid-1990s. She said she believed the experiences of more young Emirati women professionals would come to resemble that of Ms. Qaissieh’s.

“They are extremely well educated, technically savvy, fluent in a couple of languages and extremely ambitious,” she said. “We will see these ladies shying away from the government. A lot of these girls will succeed in the private sector.”

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