x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Emiratisation goals rely on expatriates as part of solution

If Emiratisation is to succeed, expatriates in the private sector will have to have an incentive to help make it succeed.

At the beginning of the month, the Cabinet approved a 10-point national agenda on Emiratisation and education. The strategy emphasises job training for Emiratis, which is the best way to go, but it also got me thinking about other approaches that could complement those efforts.

Emiratisation has always been a hot topic for Emiratis and expatriates both, sometimes for different reasons. In the recent FNC campaign, it was clear that public opinion was very concerned with topics related to the population imbalance, in which Emiratis make up less than 20 per cent of the populace, and how Emiratisation can play a role in realigning the demographics. The issue has a heightened sense of urgency, and rightfully so.

The relatively slow progress of Emiratisation efforts, taken with the 13 per cent unemployment rate of nationals at the beginning of 2011, is a serious concern for national development. Any country's stability depends on its citizen labour force, just from a perspective of continuity. When the financial crisis hit in 2008-9, how many people were afraid that it would be Emiratis who left the country to seek jobs abroad?

There are several initiatives that are meant to boost Emiratis' participation in the public and private sectors: the mandate from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to the Executive Council to create 6,000 jobs in government departments, for instance; and the Khalifa Fund for Emiratisation Empowerment, which set aside Dh440 million to train Emiratis and to subsidise salaries. The goal now for business executives on the ground is to implement these programmes.

That raises a question: who are we depending on to implement effective and sustainable Emiratisation policies? This is not just a matter of filling quotas, but of bringing Emiratis into the workplace, training them to the highest standards and providing an environment where they can grow and flourish.

The answer, I hope, is pretty obvious. With the lack of Emiratis in the private sector, we depend on expatriates to help implement the various Emiratisation strategies on the ground. The numbers speak for themselves: Emiratis make up about 5 per cent of the private sector. In some critical fields, such as health care, only 6 per cent of the workforce (and 1 per cent of physicians) is Emirati.

The training of young Emirati professionals by expatriate managers and staff is an interesting - and controversial - situation. One common argument that I have heard is that there is a lack of knowledge transfer from experienced expatriates to Emiratis.

That may be the case, but it raises another interesting point. I have never seen qualified expatriates lose their jobs because they have trained young Emiratis to fill their jobs. If anything, experienced trainers are kept as an asset to develop other young nationals.

There is another issue that pertains to how expatriate professionals are treated by their own organisations. We have to remember that expatriate workers have their own career development goals, which can have a positive knock-on effect for their Emirati colleagues.

One example makes my point: a young, ambitious American woman, a recent business school graduate, has been working at an Abu Dhabi company for about one year. During that time, she has not benefited from any career planning, training programmes or job-development schemes - yet she has been assigned to develop those same programmes for young Emiratis in her workplace.

How sustainable is a model where expatriates help to develop Emirati professional talent without development for their own careers? Some might argue that expatriates should stay in their own countries if they want to benefit from career-development programmes. But that is shortsighted. Expatriates' career ambitions and personal development targets strengthen their role in complementing the Emirati workforce.

What we have to recognise is that Emiratisation relies on workplace training. Recruitment incentives that reward companies for hiring Emiratis are only a beginning. What would make more sense would be rewarding companies for career development, perhaps by setting performance targets for Emiratis.

Companies should use their imagination when structuring the workforce to maximise training opportunities. They need to have a vested interest in developing Emirati staff as well as meeting expatriates' personal and professional needs. Let's be honest: national development will be the last thing on any manager's mind if his or her personal professional development is blocked.

Human beings are not commodities and should not be treated as such. Emiratis depend on expatriates for career training and climbing the corporate ladder. In some ways, this is similar to the student-teacher relationship: if the teacher is not inspired, it is the student who suffers.

With national leaders setting mandates for the Emirati workforce, expatriates have to be part of the solution. It starts with organisations making them feel that way. That could kick-start an effective Emiratisation movement.


Khalid Al Ameri is an associate at an Abu Dhabi development company