At every majlis and social gathering, and even at the weddings that I have attended lately, the topic of the hour has been the same: Emiratisation.
For several years now, the Government has taken an active role in increasing the participation of UAE nationals in the workforce, especially in the private sector.
There has been progress, but the fact is that many fresh Emirati graduates remain jobless.
My Emirati best friend, who holds a bachelor's degree in business, had to wait more than a year to find a job. At one point, after several fruitless interviews and dropping her CV off at seemingly every Abu Dhabi organisation represented at job fairs, she felt unwanted in her own country.
"I do not even know why companies participate in job fairs if they do not want to hire Emiratis. We were not highly educated 40 years ago, but we are now, and know more about our country than expatriates ever will," she says.
Similarly, employed Emiratis are enraged that expatriates still dominate in key positions. Making matters worse, those expats are perceived as unwilling to train Emiratis because of embedded stereotypes of the lazy Khaleeji worker - or perhaps the fear that expats could be replaced once Emirati skill levels became comparable.
These concerns are prevalent in online discussions and in BlackBerry instant message conversations. I was shocked to learn of a personal advertisement by an Emirati chemical engineering graduate who had not received a single job offer even a year after graduating.
The website Jobs Abu Dhabi - created by the Abu Dhabi Government - has 27,000 Emirati job seekers registered on it. The total number of unemployed Emiratis reportedly reached an astounding 43,000 this year. That is a huge number in a country where nationals comprise less than 20 per cent of the population.
What is more, consider that the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research spent more than 22.5 per cent of the UAE's budget on education last year. Given that level of spending on education, most Emiratis should be more than qualified to contribute to local companies.
I've been concerned with this issue for more than three years. My master's degree thesis involved interviewing leading government officials and executives of local companies about their perceptions of barriers to Emiratisation.
The two main problems they cited: that Emiratis do not really want to work in the private sector and that the Government does not monitor whether companies are truly making an effort. Some of the responses I received:
"Emiratis want to join the Government entities due to shorter working hours, higher salaries, security, social status and fast career development," a director in a leading property company said.
"The Government does not give incentives for us to actively participate in the process, and the monitoring system is still not effective throughout all sectors," said another executive.
Faced with a similar problem, Saudi Arabia recently implemented a requirement that private-sector companies have a certain percentage of Saudi employees. Those that fail to reach the target will not be allowed to renew the visas of their expatriate workers.
A similar policy is in place for the UAE's banking sector and is monitored by the Central Bank.
The question is whether to focus on quotas or incentives - the stick or the carrot?
The quota system provides no escape for companies - they must hire nationals - but focuses more on quantity than quality.
A colleague who works in a bank told me that her company randomly hires Emirati nationals and sidelines them.
For Emiratisation to be effective, I recommend using both the carrot and the stick: a quota system that is accompanied by strong incentives such as better ratings for organisations that employ and promote Emiratis and speedy visa renewals for their workers.
The Government could also provide subsidies that allow Emiratis in the private sector to enjoy comparable working hours and a pension fund as they would in the public sector. There should also be an extensive public campaign to educate nationals about the importance to the UAE economy of developing a private sector staffed by local workers.
In addition, for the UAE's expenditure on education to be effective, it should be paired with scholarship programmes that correspond to market needs. For example, with the UAE making a push to become a world leader in renewable energy, a segment of Emirati students should be encouraged to enter those fields that are demanded by the country. Other critical areas include nuclear energy, finance, accounting and environmental sciences.
The number of Emiratis entering the workforce will more than double within 10 years. The country cannot afford to wait for an effective solution.
Manar al Hinai, a UAE citizen, holds a master's degree in diversity management from the University of Leeds.