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Ahmed al Mehairbi, one of the few Emiratis working in the service sector, conducts a guided tour at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Ahmed al Mehairbi, one of the few Emiratis working in the service sector, conducts a guided tour at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Service sector is waiting for Emiratis seeking opportunity

Employers need to overcome the perception that a government job offers so much more than one in a field filled by expats.

Visitors to this country encounter a wide range of nationalities, from Pakistani taxi drivers to Filipina hotel workers and Indian restaurant staff, among many more. But rarely will they meet an Emirati in the service sector.

Low wages and even lower prestige have led to extremely slow Emiratisation in the service industry. Even in mid-level, back-office positions, it is uncommon to find nationals doing workaday jobs in non-governmental positions. Although statistics are limited, "by and large, Emiratis have been resistant to moving into more service-oriented positions", says Paul Dyer, a research associate with the Dubai School of Government.

Nationals are estimated to make up only one per cent of the country's private-sector workforce. "The largest obstacle to increasing Emirati employment in the private service industry is the continued lure of the public sector. Here, job security, benefits and relatively high salaries and, often, shorter working hours, continue to attract young Emiratis." As well as this, Mr Dyer says, Emiratis generally feel more comfortable sharing work environments with their compatriots. Tensions can arise in private-sector workplaces, as Emiratis and non-nationals often have little understanding of each others' cultures and traditions.

"At the same time, there remains a significant skills gap between young Emiratis and the needs of the private sector," he says, "because in school, Emirati youths focus on educational achievements that will help them secure public-sector jobs instead of private-sector jobs." High dropout rates and a lack of preparation for the private sector, such as how to present oneself in an office environment and even how to create a suitable CV, are holding back Emiratis, he maintains.

Some 12,000 Emiratis are listed as looking for full-time work. Yet very few are benefiting from the billions of dollars being poured into developing the business, property and tourism sectors. It is here that jobs traditionally go to workers from overseas. One man addressing the problem is Abdul Basset, the Emirati chief executive of Aswaaq, a government-sponsored supermarket chain. Mr Basset and his company are trying to encourage more Emiratis into the retail sector. Indeed, he says 58 per cent of staff at Aswaaq's head office are Emiratis.

Over the store's six chains, that figure is still around 16 per cent, Aswaaq says. This is despite the fact that Emiratis generally command a higher average wage. Mr Basset says the industry's generally low Emiratisation figures can, in part, be attributed to strong competition for jobs from expatriates. "People want to keep their jobs for themselves," he says. But, he adds, unfortunate preconceptions about nationals also have a negative effect.

"There is competition and stereotypes built against UAE nationals that we're not competitive, not aggressive, not hard-working, or are lazy." Such stereotypes are reinforced by the fact that so few Emiratis work in the private sector, he says. "If people have seen one person like that they apply that to the whole population. You can't say that because one Lebanese person is bad, that all Lebanese people are bad. You cannot say this."

Because the UAE's working society is so stratified by ethnicity, Emiratis also have difficulty breaking into non-traditional fields, he says. It is a problem for others, too. For example, "in marketing, if you are an Indian, you cannot be accepted because this industry is controlled by Lebanese and western expats. This goes across business, retail and Government." By increasing awareness of the opportunities in the retail sector, paying a little more, offering training and improving recruitment, Aswaaq has managed an overall Emiratisation penetration of 22 per cent at head office and within its stores since it began four years ago.

It is Mr Basset's ambition to introduce more Emiratis to industries outside the public sector. "It's a mission for me to get opportunities for my people," he says, "because I am a UAE national, and I believe my people deserve a chance in this country and have to be given the first chance." However, Mr Dyer says, the private sector generally works along far less altruistic lines. As long as it is easy to hire a low-skilled worker at a fraction of the cost of an Emirati, most companies will not hire nationals unless they are required to do so by the Government.

In few places is this more evident than the tourism sector. Both visitors and the UAE could gain from an interaction between tourists and local men and women. It would be a chance for the country to show its true face to the world and shrug off stereotypes. However, tourists generally spend most of their time being served by tour guides and hotel workers from the Philippines and India. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) estimates that fewer than one per cent of the emirate's tourism posts are held by Emiratis.

"They think like this: 'Why should I work six days for less salary when in the Government they pay more for less time?'" says Nasser Saif al Reyami, the director of the authority's tourism standards division. Tourism is expected to account for almost one third of the country's economy by 2030, as the nation strives to diversify and become less dependent on oil. Dubai expects more than 15 million visitors a year by 2015, while Abu Dhabi is pouring billions into major cultural projects, such as the Louvre and Guggenheim museums on Saadiyat Island.

Yet the ADTA has only a half-dozen full-time Emirati tour guides and just a handful who work behind the scenes at the Emirates Palace hotel. Atef Abdulla al Bastaki, the ADTA's senior executive in charge of Emiratisation in the tourism industry, says that in addition to issues of pay and prestige, there are major cultural barriers to overcome. "When it comes to girls, [nationals] say, 'We don't want our girls to be involved with strangers.' When it comes to tourism you're going to be in the field. It's not an office job, it's an outside job."

Hotels, the focal point of much of the nation's entertainment and hospitality industries, have an unfortunate association for many nationals, he says. "Parents don't want their kids to be involved in a hotel where they're serving alcohol, or in a nightclub. The first thing that comes to mind is that he's going to be a bartender. They don't know about the different sections in the hotel." To try to remedy this, Mr al Bastaki says, the ADTA is focusing on educating parents about the Government's long-term development goals.

It is also trying to reach the younger generation of Emiratis in high schools and universities. Various initiatives seem to be paying dividends, albeit slowly, he says. Ambassador programmes and tourism summer camps have been oversubscribed and, despite the cultural reservations, it is Emirati women who are the most interested. "When we interviewed the girls, we were shocked. The boys said: 'I just want to do something in the summer.' The girls were asking: 'I want to know what you have, where you are going to go.' I was very impressed."

There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learnt from finance and banking, the non-governmental service sector that has proved to be most attractive to Emiratis. According to government statistics released in 2005, quotas imposed on the finance sector in 1999 led to a 300 per cent increase in the number of Emiratis working in banks. The most recent statistics available show that 26.4 per cent of the country's banking workforce is Emirati.

One of the most successful banks in this respect is HSBC, which has achieved 31 per cent Emiratisation and is aiming for 40 per cent by the end of this year. "Of the Emiratis who work at the bank, 60 per cent are what we would consider to be at a managerial level," says Ammar Shams, the head of human resources for HSBC Middle East in the GCC. However, he acknowledges that even prestigious positions in banking can be difficult to fill.

"It's a natural numbers game. The country is growing at a rate that outstrips local population growth. The banking sector's growth outstrips the local population growth. The demographics are the challenge." Schools are not keeping up with the private sector's needs, Mr Shams says. He blames a lack of training in appropriate subjects, unsuitable learning styles and poor development of critical thinking.

But these obstacles can be overcome if companies can offer a promising career progression and a mentoring culture, Mr Shams says. "Talented Emiratis are wanted and needed by everybody. Limited resources are the challenges we all face." While quotas have offered promising results for banking, Mr Dyer says they are a short-term solution. Unless companies are willing to properly train and mentor their Emirati employees, nationals risk becoming "ghost" hires - people who are on the books but do little actual work.

This, he says, "can serve as a disincentive for young Emiratis to develop the skills they will need to continue advancing later in their careers". Quotas can also produce a particularly demoralising work environment if they are not accompanied by training and mentoring, according to Ian Giulianotti, the director of recruitment and training at Nadia Recruitment, which places staff across the UAE. "Some employers see Emiratisation as a form of taxation," he says. "If you're a big company, you need to get Emiratis on the books, otherwise you won't get your labour clearances. That's just a fact of life."

jgerson@thenational.ae

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