x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A job revolution in the aisles

The supermarket chain Aswaaq is leading the way in increasing the numbers of Emiratis working in retail.

DUBAI // She had never enjoyed cooking, let alone pictured herself as a professional baker. But when Laila Ali, a 26-year-old Emirati, applied for a job with Aswaaq, a new chain of grocery stores based in Dubai, she was offered the role during her interview. "At the time, I thought, 'It's possible, why not? Let's try it.'"

Now, after four months training and working in the Aswaaq outlet in the Al Mizhar area, the mother of three can make a range of treats, from her favourite manakish to French pastries. She has found a job she enjoys and aspires to open her own bakery someday - exactly what Aswaaq aims to achieve. The supermarket chain, backed by the Dubai Government, was the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. It was founded in 2008 to increase the number of Emiratis working in retail, from administration to front-line roles that were not traditionally filled by UAE nationals.

And it seems to be working. While Emiratis fill only two per cent of the jobs in the private sector overall, about 26 per cent of Aswaaq's 400-strong staff are UAE nationals, from merchandising to produce managers, shelf-fillers working on the shop floor, bakers and delivery staff, says its chief executive, Abdul Baset al Janahi. As many as 55 per cent of the Emiratis Aswaaq employs are women. "Retail is one of the biggest contributors of the GDP," says Mr al Janahi.

"But what is the percentage of UAE nationals involved in retail? It's very, very minimal. So what we're trying to do, because of the opportunity in the retail business, is to introduce them to it." Aswaaq's aim, besides making profits, is to foster careers and build up retail entrepreneurs among UAE nationals through hands-on vocational training, he said. Aswaaq has opened three outlets so far, starting with a centre in the Nad al Hammar area of Dubai last October. The second community centre in Al Mizhar was launched in March, and a standalone grocery store in Al Sufouh followed in April.

The retail chain's combined budget for 2008-09 is nearly Dh430 million (US$117m). The company is waiting for market conditions to improve before going public. Aswaaq has big plans to fund, as it is targeting 40 outlets in five years, 22 of which will also be community centres like the one in Al Mizhar. These facilities are mini-shopping centres, with cafes and retail shops, in addition to an Aswaaq grocery store. Roughly 20 per cent of retail space at each of its 22 planned centres have been set aside for a souk-style market, called Dakakeen. Emirati entrepreneurs are given a 20 per cent discount on rent for three years, and help on how to establish their businesses legally, and structurally, Mr al Janahi says.

So far, half of the 60-odd shops at its two recently opened community centres are run by nationals who are hands-on, says Mr al Janahi. "We're not asking them to be sleeping partners. Otherwise, we will ask them to leave. They have to be active participants." It is a unique approach that seems to be faring better than other initiatives to incorporate UAE nationals, such as enforced hiring quotas.

In fact, Mr al Janahi says he is against the idea of Emiratisation. "People who do Emiratisation programmes, they are not serious about it. They will spend that money on exhibitions and career fairs, and nothing really happens. You better believe in what you want to do and recruit them." Paul Dyer, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government, says Emiratis represent about two per cent of employees in the private sector, and just over 50 per cent in the public sector; government jobs have traditionally been more attractive because of higher wages, shorter hours, job stability and a consistent promotional track, he says.

Another obstacle for sectors such as finance, which have staff quotas of 15 per cent, is finding enough Emiratis with the right qualifications for specialised jobs, he says. Some firms, unable to find the right candidates, simply hire individuals to fill the quota but do not give them tasks, training or a clear career trajectory, he says. "That has fed back into the perception of the private sector, that it's a dead end."

A recent study by the Emirates National Development Programme showed a lack of career progression, insensitivity to religious customs and dress code and the absence of a mentoring culture as the most frequently cited reasons by UAE nationals who resigned their posts. Aswaaq is trying to change that, said Mr al Janahi. "We have put pressure on ourselves to map out a plan or a career path that is ready for any staff to see where they will get to ... this is the way we have managed to persuade some of the UAE nationals."

Affan al Khoori, Aswaaq's director of merchandising and buying and part of the founding team, says the shop floor aims to be a learning ground where employees can explore their potential. "Having them available at the store at the base level will give them the experience of dealing with customers, handling cash, seeing how the process runs, learning the correct operations and procedures. "Seeing this builds character and builds motivation within them, and you never know, the person selling the fish today will have his own fish business in the future."

Mr al Janahi says Aswaaq's Emirati employees are paid more than their counterparts of other nationalities, and need to be. "We became a minority," he says. "We have to take care of ourselves." The Aswaaq model could be "revolutionary", says Mr Dyer. "I think that over time it could present a model in how private sector should reach out. But it's hard to really judge how successful they will be in the long term."

Service-oriented jobs are often not seen as viable roles for Emiratis, as they have been traditionally filled by foreign workers, says Mr al Khoori. "If I look at my generation, I don't know if there is anyone who would have accepted to work in a bakery, because it was not introduced to us. We have always been able to get people to do the job for us." However, Aswaaq is trying to bring back the feel of the traditional street market, in both design and the relationship between customer and seller that his parents' generation had, he says.

Another six Aswaaq stores are due to open in Dubai by the end of the year. The eventual aim is to take the brand to other GCC countries. Mr al Khoori hopes more Emiratis sign on with Aswaaq and the current employees can serve as mentors. aligaya@thenational.ae