When the Government decided which industries would best serve a vibrant, economically diverse Abu Dhabi, one area became immediately apparent: aviation and aerospace. Homaid al Shemmari, the head of aerospace for Mubadala, said the industry played on all of the Emirate's strengths, and sidelines many of its weaknesses.
"We looked at Abu Dhabi and it's a capital-rich environment. The aerospace industry requires a lot of capital, it's a capital-intensive industry," he said. "Abu Dhabi also has an abundance of energy - the aerospace industry is an energy-intensive industry, especially the composite manufacturing." And, lastly: "Abu Dhabi has a deficiency in providing enough human capital, UAE nationals. With the aerospace industry we can look at the high end, where there's a lot of technology in automation, so we don't require thousands and thousands of employees."
This model allows Abu Dhabi to stand out in an industry dominated by places such as India and China, where people are plentiful and labour is cheap. Mubadala's aerospace initiatives were developed in 2005 and implemented a year later. Since then, the government-owned company has been purchasing and consolidating the capital's aerospace assets. It now owns the Horizon Flight School that trains Etihad pilots and a composite manufacturing plant, Strata, has already accepted billions of dirhams' worth of contracts for when it begins producing parts in 2010.
Mubadala was also placed in charge by government decree in 2007 of Abu Dhabi Aircraft Technologies, formerly known as Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company, an aircraft maintenance and repair company. However, Emiratis are rare in the industry. "The reality of the existing assets right now is that the Emiratisation is not really great, the achievements are not great. We are working with somewhere between two to five per cent at best," said Mr al Shemmari.
"This is because of the specificity of the industry. This is a high-demand industry from an education point of view - you can't get an engineer or an aerospace engineer out in two or three years." The company's long-term Emiratisation goals are ambitious. Within the next 10 to 15 years, Mr al Shemmari said he hoped to see between 60 and 75 per cent of the industry run by Emiratis. "It's quite ambitious because at the end of the day, our mandate is to diversify the economy of Abu Dhabi and to create job opportunities for nationals; to create the new wave of leaders coming out of Abu Dhabi."
To realise those goals, the Government must continue its drastic overhaul of the education system, he said. Currently, Mubadala is working with the emirate's universities and the Abu Dhabi Education Council to get engineering and science degrees up to international standards. "Our goal is very simple: to offer a world-class education in Abu Dhabi for the mass population. Not like someone like me who, in 1985, was shipped to the US to become an aeronautical engineer," he said.
He said they hope to partner UAE universities with some of the world's best schools and that several initiatives to this effect will be announced in 2010. "There have been great strides to get to where we are right now. I think the Abu Dhabi Government, by creating the Abu Dhabi Education Council, has made commitments to that and I think there is a lot of effort. But we're not there yet definitely. Everybody has to realise that to revamp an education system, to make it a world-class standard, that's going to take a lot of time and effort."
To improve vocational programmes may take as little as 12 to 18 months, Mr al Shemmari said. However, to update the curriculum of more advanced subjects and degrees, including bachelor's programmes in engineering, may take four to five years. If successful, an education in Abu Dhabi may soon be on par with what is on offer at the best US and European schools. "Our goal is to have an education system where you can take someone who graduates from UAE University, Khalifa University or Al Ain International academy, or any of those, and can have the opportunity for employment internationally," he said. "We're not focusing on just creating an output for the UAE market."
Once the educational systems are in place, Mr al Shemmari said the next step was to create awareness and excitement about the industry. Events such as the Formula One Grand Prix, and initiatives like a yet-to-be finalised plan for an aviation museum will eventually encourage Emiratis to consider the field. "It's about convincing the young kids that there are great opportunities that you can fulfil and add value to your country, to the growth of this country, to be proud to be involved in something significant is what we can convince our UAE nationals to be doing."