Laila Ali Hareb Al Muhairi, the assistant director general at the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) last week won the silver trophy in the female innovator category at the 10th annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business.
Here, she talks about the challenges of a mid-career switch, and having the opportunity to leave a stamp on the world.
You didn’t begin your career in aviation. How did you start?
I studied software engineering at the University of the UAE in Al Ain. I got my bachelor’s degree, then I went to do a masters in the US, in Colorado. But I came back before I finished because I had an opportunity with Dewa [Dubai Electricity and Water Authority] working in information technology. I worked in IT for many years. I started as a graduate trainee, then moved up the ladder until I became a manager. I slowly got into strategic planning, working on the IT side of strategic planning and then as part of Dewa’s strategic planning team.
From water and electricity to transport – how did that happen?
The RTA [Road and Transport Authority] was set up in 2005 and I moved there – I was part of the initial team. I was assistant director of strategy, then I moved to director of strategy in two months. I was there until 2009 when I decided to change my career. I was approached by the GCAA and I moved to aviation, as director of strategy in the beginning, then executive director of strategy and international affairs. Recently I became an assistant director. I am the only planner who has vast experience of planning in all modes of transport. I never find anyone in meetings who knows rail, marine, roads, aviation. It is rare. It is a huge challenge to move into a technical field like this, but it is doable.
What made you take that challenge?
There were so many reasons – not only professional but personal. I am someone who is curious and wants more knowledge and I felt IT was limiting me. Then I had a life-threatening illness – encephalitis – that made me think I need to change my life. It was 50-50 dead or alive. I was totally paralysed so I had to go for months of rehab, learning again how to eat, to speak, to walk. And then I had a totally different perspective on life and I said, ‘Now I need to change my life. I need to jump into a new challenge.’ Life is much bigger than what I was doing in IT at Dewa. That’s how I moved to RTA actually. It was a little bit worrying as I had been in IT for so many years and I was moving into strategic planning in transportation. It’s a big deal to establish your credibility when you don’t have so much experience in that area. But I did. It took me a while because you need knowledge of transportation and of the technical aspects. But because I came from IT, I grasped the technical aspects very quickly and that really helped me understand the business of RTA and the business of transport. Aviation is another world — it’s a more complex issue. It’s not like RTA, which is only for one city. This is ruled by international laws and the sky is connected with other skies. Immediately, I took an aviation course with Iata in Singapore for two weeks. In the course I got a distinction, while people with many years experience did not. That was surprising because I had never worked in aviation; it’s something I am proud of.
What’s keeping you busy now?
Airspace. Aviation has grown very fast but our airspace in the UAE is very small and this growth adds complexity. There are lots of aspects we need to look at – the safety of flights and environmental aspects. When a plane waits for landing, there is fuel consumption and emissions. There are a lot of negative aspects when it comes to the complexity. We are working on a big study with local stakeholders – with the airlines – to restructure the airspace, and increase the efficiency and management of the airspace. We are really working with the industry to enhance our regulation so there is a lot of safety promotion. This is something we are trying to increase. So far we don’t have a national measure for safety in aviation so we are trying to come up with a system.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I like everything about my job. The management of GCAA is very supportive and this is something I was looking for, for a long time. If somebody wants to change things and to innovate and has the encouragement to be creative that is very exciting. Also, meeting people; this is a global industry and connecting with the world is something that always excites me. The GCAA is part of International Civil Aviation Organization – an international organisation that shapes society. At the end of the day, you are doing something and leaving a stamp – even a tiny one; you are contributing to the world, not only in the UAE. That’s something very exciting.