x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All work and no pay, but Abu Dhabi Grand Prix volunteers just love it

Takatof volunteers put in grueling hours at Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but the experience is priceless.

Amna Al Zaabi, a volunteer at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Razan Alzayani / The National
Amna Al Zaabi, a volunteer at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Razan Alzayani / The National

Abu Dhabi // Amna Al Zaabi works 12-hour days for no pay, but you won’t hear a peep of complaint spoken from her lips about her gruelling schedule. On the contrary, the young Emirati woman says she’s grateful for the experience.

“It’s an honour,” the 24-year-old from Abu Dhabi said. “It’s quite a heavy task but I enjoy doing it.”

Ms Al Zaabi is one of 300 Emiratis from the Takatof Programme for Social Volunteering who will be helping fans, VIPs and media make the best of this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit.

The volunteers, who can be identified by the striped vests they wear over their traditional Emirati clothing, will do everything from greeting and chauffeuring attendants to organising media interviews and press conferences.

The programme’s senior project leader Abdulla Al Suwaidi said the opportunity to take part in one of the country’s premier events was open to all UAE nationals between the ages of 18 and 35. Recruiters issued bulletins on the Takatof.ae website, sent texts to a database of 35,000 prospective volunteers and visited university campuses looking for the best and the brightest from across the country.

The candidates were chosen from a pool of 800 applicants who responded to Takatof’s call for entries.

Mr Al Suwaidi said that although the volunteers do not receive any financial compensation, what they gain in experience is priceless. They learn communication and leadership skills that are indispensable in today’s competitive business market.

“We build confidence for them to be a UAE ambassador,” Mr Al Suwaidi said. “They feel proud for what they do, so they appreciate at the it end of the day.”

When Ms Al Zaabi joined the group in 2009, she worked as an entry-level volunteer completing basis tasks. Today, she is an area supervisor overseeing a group of nine other volunteers in the media centre.

“When I think about how I started and where I am right now it’s quite dizzying,” she said. “And also representing the country – it’s a honour.”

Her job is a hectic one that involves ushering more than 600 journalists from all over the world around the track to get interviews, set up photos or write their stories. Her day begins at 7am and does not end until the last correspondent has left the building, usually about 9 or 10pm.

“It’s a lot of work to do, it’s a lot of pressure,” said Ms Al Zaabi, whose employer, Aldar Properties, gave her the time off to volunteer. “Because, imagine, we have only three days to accommodate over 600 journalists and photographers and they all come in at the same time.”

Although her volunteer job is demanding, she said it also affords her a chance to practice the five languages she speaks – Arabic, English, Hindi, Tagali and Japanese.

“It’s nice to just do something without anything in return, just to give back,” she said. “For me, it’s work and it’s fun.”

Another volunteer, 23-year-old Mana Mohammed, of Dubai, started out as a driver who shuttled visitors back and forth from hotels or from gate to gate. Now, he too is a volunteer area supervisor who manages team captains.

“It’s a good experience,” said Mr Mohammed, who is also a full-time student at UAE University in Al Ain and a part-time employee at Plug-ins Electronix. “I have improved my English, I have improved my communications skills.”

For many of the foreigners attending the Grand Prix, the interaction they have with the Takatof volunteers is likely to be the only opportunity they have to meet and mix with locals, Al Suwaidi said.

The face-to-face meetings offer a good opportunity for the Emiratis to dispel myths about the UAE culture and people, he said.

Richard Cregan, chief executive of Yas Marina Circuit, says the volunteers play an important role in ensuring a successful race weekend.

“Support from the local community is what makes the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix such a great occasion,” Mr Cregan said. “The commitment from our Takatof volunteers every year is crucial to the success of the entire race weekend.”

rpennington@thenational.ae