x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Employment is - as yet - an unfulfilled role of foreign firms

To link Emiratis with top private firms more must be done to create opportunities for national employees.

In the UAE economy, the public sector provides the bulk of job opportunities for the national labour force. This makes sense in the short term. But over time, as more graduates seek jobs that meet their aspirations in terms of remuneration and career development, the public sector will be unable to meet demand.

That is why the Government has set up career-development initiatives such as the Tawteen programme based in Abu Dhabi, to assist Emiratis in finding employment in the private sector.

And yet these efforts will fall short unless improvements are made to link private firms with capable employees.

The role of the private sector in hiring Emiratis is emphasised, but against the backdrop of liberal market policies. These are essential for the country to maintain its global competitiveness, but success remains elusive.

Many Emiratis possess entrepreneurial ambitions and have significant potential, but most have neither the funding nor the expertise to operate their own businesses. There are several public funds to support young nationals' business initiatives, but bureaucratic hurdles have limited the effect of these programmes.

And those few who do succeed in starting their own enterprises often find themselves excluded from large federal projects in infrastructure, commerce and industry. But what if Emiratis were able to train at top-tier multinational firms? Might this, over time, give Emiratis the skills to build successful firms of their own?

There is a certain paradox in the economic trajectory: while large-scale projects, particularly in construction, are building the foundation for domestic growth, contracts are won by firms with world-class technical expertise, strong financial capabilities and established track records - criteria that only global multinationals meet.

There is stiff competition for these contracts, and thus the multinationals focus on cutting costs and utilising their own management and in-house resources. Local firms are simply priced out.

But this landscape does not need to exclude Emiratis from the workforce. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to encourage broader partnerships between foreign firms and Emirati workers.

Many of the companies working in the UAE are world-renowned firms with years of experience in technology innovation and business development. There are inherent opportunities for Emiratis to benefit from sustainable employment, mentorship and lessons in entrepreneurship.

To link Emiratis with these firms, a bridge programme could build mechanisms into contracts that create opportunities for national employees. Such mechanisms might encourage mandatory training programmes for Emiratis, so long as they did not compromise project quality or delivery.

To get such an effort off the ground, the UAE would need to create a new authority to coordinate development projects with area business councils, and identify corporations interested and able to participate. This authority could include incentives for the participating companies to offset the extra costs involved in the process.

As part of the project requirements, winning companies would then be expected to employ Emirati personnel from a list of suitable candidates provided by the authority or existing organisations such as Tawteen.

Considering that some of the UAE's major development projects are long term, the effect on Emirati employees' career development could be considerable.

The Abu Dhabi Government deserves credit for its efforts to increase the number of Emiratis in the private sector, especially the genuine interest in curtailing the "wasta" factor to create a level playing field.

But more is needed to deepen the participation of Emiratis in the country's future. A mentorship project would be truly ground-breaking for the UAE and a model for the region.

The programme would give young Emiratis a chance at advancement and commercial opportunities to companies. If successful, the model could be expanded to every GCC country to address their own nationalisation and development challenges.

 

Dr Shaikha Al Maskari is an Emirati businesswoman and philanthropist