AL GHARBIA // As the Government works to develop the oil-rich Al Gharbia, officials say their focus is shifting towards attracting an untapped resource: youth. The key to making that shift is providing opportunities including jobs and education that keep young people from fleeing to the big cities, according to organisers of the second Al Gharbia Career Fair.
The efforts are already beginning to pay off, they say. "There is more life now in the towns," said Sheikha al Mehairi, manager of the people development department in the Western Region Development Council (WRDC). The career fair, which began yesterday at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) campus in Madinat Zayed, continues at the Ruwais campus on Wednesday and Thursday. The goal of the fair is to spread the word of job opportunities in the region, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of Abu Dhabi's land mass but only eight per cent of its population.
The area, formerly known as the Western Region, is rich in natural resources, contributing between 40 and 60 per cent of Abu Dhabi's GDP, depending on the price of oil. Billions of dirhams in development funds have already been pledged for the region. Over Dh70 billion (US$19bn) has been allocated for oil and gas development, more than Dh10bn for road development, and Dh12bn in tourism development. Additional funds have been allocated for other residential and commercial projects.
Those investments support not only industry and business but attract residents as well, Ms al Mehairi said. People could not be expected to remain in the region without "ensuring there are good private schools, access to health care, better homes", she added. Still, the organisers of the fair, speaking at a forum on education in the region, acknowledged there were many challenges, with an illiteracy rate that was "bringing Abu Dhabi down", said Ms al Mehairi.
According to the WRDC, illiteracy rates in Al Gharbia are one per cent for students aged 10 to 18; four per cent for men and eight per cent for women aged 19 to 39; and 40 per cent for men and 68 per cent for women 40 years and older. Job opportunities closer to home make sense to Meead al Hammadi, an Emirati from Mirfa and a student of business and IT in Madinat Zayed. While she would rather find a career for herself in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, she hoped to find a job in Al Gharbia because "it's closer to home and we don't have the transport".
She would rather go to the big city because services, entertainment and shopping destinations are scarce in Al Gharbia. "There are a lot of things missing here that are in the city," said Ms al Hammadi. "The city has everything, but Mirfa has nothing." Fahad Abdullah, an employment officer at the UAE's Tanmia initiative, which focuses on creating job opportunities for Emiratis, said that females faced more difficulties than males in finding job opportunities because of family traditions and the distances involved in travelling to work if they sought jobs outside the region.
Others attending the fair have taken it upon themselves to promote Al Gharbia as a hub for development. Two HCT students, Yalwa al Mazroui and Mariam al Hammadi, who volunteered to help organise the careers fair, decided to approach companies with branches in the UAE and invite them to open in Al Gharbia. "It is our area, we want it to improve and develop," said Ms al Mazroui. "There is demand for work. People apply outside because there are no jobs here, so we try to get companies to open here."
Ana Bosque de Artaza, the human resources manager for Euroestudios, a Spanish consultancy involved in several infrastructure and construction projects in the area, said the attraction for Western companies was a clean slate for development. "Everything has happened already in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," she said, adding that working on development in the area gave the company a chance to participate in large-scale initiatives like the Abu Dhabi 2030 Master Plan.
One trend Ms de Artaza noticed, however, was that females who approached the company were more interested in administrative jobs rather than technical ones. But poor educational facilities, lack of attractive benefits for expatriates, unqualified school staff and a small number of private schools have hindered the push for both jobs and well-schooled applicants, Ms al Mehairi said. The number of government schools in Al Gharbia fell from 55 in the 2006-2007 academic year to 46 the next year, after seven schools for girls and two for boys were closed, according to figures provided by the WRDC. There are only 10 private schools in the region.
School dropout rates are still high, with the latest statistics, from 2006, showing Al Gharbia at an eight per cent dropout rate, twice that of Abu Dhabi City, according to the WRDC. That number fell for Grades 10 to 12 after the opening of the HCT, perhaps because Al Gharbia youth saw opportunities to pursue higher education closer to home. "There was no future before," said Ms al Mehairi. Additionally, more than 30,000 inhabitants of the region will be seeking some form of university education over the next three or four years; a "youth bulge", representing an unusually high percentage of young people in the region's population is expected to materialise.
The next challenge will be in how to handle so many students, said Dr Philip Quirke, director of Madinat Zayed Colleges. Dr Quirke said the HCT was planning to open two new colleges, in Madinat Zayed and Gayathi, that would accommodate 2,500 students each. Branches of the HCT were planned for Liwa, Mirfa, Sila and Delma. Low enrolment in higher education institutes is also a problem in Al Gharbia, with just seven per cent of females and 10 per cent of males joining university programmes after graduating from high school.
More than 30 exhibitors, double the number of last year's fair, were present. They included representatives of Abu Dhabi Municipality in the Western Region, Abu Dhabi's Tawteen Council which promotes Emiratisation, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company. The first day of the fair was for women only. Today's event will be open to men. email@example.com