As the country diversifies its economy away from oil, the aviation sector is proving to be an industrial powerhouse. The UAE now has five airlines, a seemingly impossible number for a population of only four million.
However, the country occupies a central position between Europe, Africa and Asia, and the industry has grown rapidly. Established in 2003, Etihad Airways already flies directly to more than 50 destinations. Emirates Airline, two decades old, flies to almost 100 cities. Air Arabia, RAK Airways and flydubai are also based here. But barely five per cent of the thousands of airline workers in the country are Emiratis.
"The issue is that it's a very new industry for us, aviation," said Salwa al Nuaimi, the vice president of talent acquisition at Etihad. "So to have experienced people to join, it's a little bit difficult." Pilot cadet programmes aimed at nationals are still in their infancy. Furthermore, Emiratis are generally reluctant to enter lower-paid and less prestigious jobs in the technical field, and women in particular are prevented by social custom from joining airlines as pilots or cabin crew.
Nevertheless, all aviation companies are working to draw more Emiratis into the field, and Etihad says it expects that, eventually, nationals will flock to jobs in the industry. In common with all other industries, aviation struggles to recruit qualified candidates from a small pool of Emiratis - 20.1 per cent of the population according to the 2005 census - compared with the ease of attracting highly trained professional expatriates at a cost premium.
"You have to compare Etihad to the UAE and we have to align with the population percentage also," Mrs al Nuaimi said. "By the end of the year, we are going to get our percentage of Emiratisation, which is five per cent. We are now four point something." The rate at Emirates Airline is closer to nine per cent, according to Massooma Hassan, its vice president of national recruitment. "We receive applications by the thousands," she said. "Most of the nationals are interested in the pilot programme." However, the industry needs more than pilots. Etihad has enrolled 42 Emiratis into a 21-month management training programme that sees graduates work around the company before taking up supervisory roles. An additional 29 Emiratis are studying in Australia to become technical engineers. Emirates also has programmes to train managers and engineers, and says a quarter of its Emirati staff are in management positions. "To attract Emiratis you have to show them the whole career path," Ms Hassan said. "Nationals look at pay, and their take-home salaries. You have to show that it's not just the money, it's the whole career that you are getting." Nevertheless, it is a challenge to encourage Emiratis to take positions in roles that are traditionally seen to be less prestigious or culturally daring, Mrs al Nuaimi said. "Like in cargo, for instance, it's very difficult to find a cargo Emirati guy." Similarly, the vast majority of Etihad's female cabin crew, with their knee-length skirts and partially exposed hair, are expatriates. Society here, she said, "is not yet much open for the outsider, and for us, we like to keep traditions and we like to be much more reserved". "There are issues with the abaya and the national dress," she said. "We like to keep it, although I'm sure we could find a formula in the future if we thought to have cabin-crew Emiratis." Two Etihad cadet pilots in particular, Ebrahim Haidar and Mohamed al Menhal, have been held up as role models for other young nationals. The pair now give speeches to inspire others to consider their career paths. "The company called me for the UAE career exhibition that was in January," Mr Haidar said. "So I went there and I presented the cadet programme. And, thanks to God, I inspired nine guys who are studying now in Al Ain." Despite the glamour of the skies, attracting Emiratis runs up against the same basic issue that drives many into banking or the public sector - money. "I really like aviation, but I find we don't get paid that much," Mr al Menhali said. "Most people think that pilots get paid like millions and millions." Money, Mr Haidar said, was a major concern for young Emiratis. "Everyone's first question is: 'How much are you guys getting?' Because they are comparing between our job and the Government and, you know, especially after the major increase in salaries which happened here." One way to counter the high pay scales of the public sector and banking industry is to offer potential aviation candidates the carrots of education, training and career advancement. In addition to a 12-week course in English, Emirati cadets are also offered an 11-week foundation course to bring them up to par in maths and physics. By comparison, expatriate pilots at the airline are expected to be fully qualified academically before they begin flight training. "Within Emiratisation, if you're not quite at the level we're looking for, we are offering you courses to bring you up to that level," said Captain Matthew Dowell, the head of Etihad's cadet pilot programme. "If you're close but not quite close enough, we will get you above the line to meet our requirements." Mrs al Nuaimi said the airline had to sort through 5,000 potential candidates to choose 100 cadets. All pilots must meet international testing and certification standards before they can fly. They must also meet physical fitness standards. Breaking into this elite cadre of professionals can bring other, unexpected benefits - to qualify for the programme, some cadets have dramatically lost weight or become more disciplined in their work habits. Mr Haidar said the programme gave him new confidence and respect for himself. He recalled the advice of one of his instructors: "As we were flying to Moscow he gave me a lecture, which I remember every single word of. He says, 'Ebrahim, I treat you as my son. This is your country. This is your airline and those passengers, they put their life in your hands. "This job is more difficult than a surgeon's. A surgeon is dealing with a single patient.' "So he says to me, 'In the future, you will be a manager or a CEO, so I need to prepare you from now on to be in that position because you're serving your country'." firstname.lastname@example.org