It only takes about five minutes of talking to Ali Ahli before he uses a phrase that comes up, almost inevitably, in any discussion with Emiratis in the private sector: he is motivated more by the challenge than by money.
This is the class of workers on whom the UAE is staking its future, but who are distinctly few in number.
However, talk to people such as Ali Ahli, the manager of two stores in Dubai, and others who have chosen to work for themselves or corporations, and the future seems distinctly rosier.
His story is all the more remarkable for his working history. For 14 years he was in the UAE Army and was on course to do his 20 years and retire with a full pension when he was forced to leave because of a bad back.
Mr Ahli was then in his early 30s and married. Going into the private sector meant taking an entry level position, with matching pay rates, but that is what he did.
The company was Ahmed Seddiqi and Sons, an Emirati-owned and managed retail business that specialised in Swiss watches.
“I was looking for any job at that time because I wanted to work,” Mr Ahli says. “I took my CV to maybe more than 15 or 20 companies and got calls from three or four companies only. One of them was this one.
“It was the owners by themselves who were doing the interview. In the interview they were [asking] whether I was looking for a very, very high position. I said, I’m married and I want to work.
“I started five years ago with Dh6,000. I’m married, no kids, and my wife was also working.
“From the beginning, at the interview they gave me a future vision for my job. They told me: ‘You’ll start as a sales executive, but if you improve yourself you’ll be shift-in-charge, deputy manager, store manager and then location manager. You’ll become area manager like this.”
And that’s exactly how it panned out. Five years on, he is now in charge of two stores at Dubai Festival City.
Ahmed Seddiqi and Sons has been in business since the 1940s and about 10 per cent of its workforce is Emirati.
Mr Ahli says everyone has an equal opportunity for promotion based on merit and hard work, without preference being given to nationals.
“Alhumdulillah, there is no discrimination for foreigners or locals, he says.
“As a personal opinion, I feel that Emiratis [who run the company] know the situation here, they are following the same life and they are living the same life.
“They are the same culture. If there’s a personal problem, they’ll get some support.
“If the managers or directors are foreigners, it’s different – and I’m not saying they’re wrong or right – but there are very strict policies: this is your time, this is your salary, this is your job and if you’re not following, no excuses.
“[Other companies] are not easy for Emiratis. If you want the truth, I know from my friends working in the private sector that they are not getting all that much support if the owners aren’t Emirati. They will give more chances to their relations. That’s what I heard.
“Most companies put locals on the face, and the back office is all foreigners. Companies have to change their mentalities and give more chances to locals to improve themselves in the back office in jobs like IT, marketing, finance. They’re very difficult to get.”
Mr Ahli’s solution to getting Emiratis in the private sector includes probationary periods on reduced salaries and applicants having realistic expectations about promotion through a clear career path.
“They should give probation – three months or six months with half salary, Dh3,000 to Dh4,000, and if it’s not perfect then, sorry ...” he says.
“People with a high degree say: ‘I want to be VP, I want to be CEO, I want to be general manager.’ I would tell them: ‘You can be location manager if you like.’
“They don’t want to. It’s a problem. But if you want to start at the beginning, it’s very easy.
“I challenge myself and improve myself by hard work. I wouldn’t push myself in government. I wanted to make some new challenges, something private – nothing to do with the Government.
“We’re not giving a big salary, but something is always better than nothing. It’s better than sleeping and waiting for a job. We give people a chance.”