Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

Emirati Women's Day: Meet the women powering the nation's future

'The National' speaks to some of the inspiring women at the forefront of the UAE's peaceful nuclear energy programme

Laila Al Dhaheri is playing a key role in the UAE's burgeoning nuclear energy sector. Courtesy: Laila Al Dhaheri
Laila Al Dhaheri is playing a key role in the UAE's burgeoning nuclear energy sector. Courtesy: Laila Al Dhaheri

The UAE has stepped into a bright new future. When Unit 1 at Barakah Nuclear Power Plant started feeding the country's grid earlier this month, the UAE hit another milestone. The Arab world’s first nuclear power plant is now producing clean electricity and diversifying the economy.

The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) oversees the programme. Founded in 2009, Enec and its subsidiary Nawah Energy Company - which operates the Barakah plant - have more than 3,000 employees. Close to 60 per cent of employees are Emiratis and 20 per cent are Emirati women. Emirati Women's Day falls on August 28, and to mark the day, The National spoke to some of the women who have made the clean energy dream a reality.

Laila Al Dhaheri, 27, reactor engineer at Barakah Nuclear Power Plant

In 2011, Laila Al Dhaheri read an article that would change her life. "The article said to achieve the UAE’s 2030 vision then there was a need for 40,000 engineers,” she said. That quote was from Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. "I thought I may be able to decrease that number by one."

She graduated from Khalifa University in 2016 and joined the UAE's peaceful nuclear energy programme. "I still have a copy of that article."

Today, Ms Al Dhaheri is part of the reactor engineering team for the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant and lives at the site, about three hours drive from Abu Dhabi city.

Her job focuses on fuel management. Nuclear power will actually be familiar to many people. Water is heated to produce steam which drives turbines which produces electricity. But for nuclear energy, the heat is created by nuclear fission. "We monitor the fuel assemblies and ensure they are operating as desired." Is her job risky? "If you ask me, Barakah is the safest place in the Middle East. It isn’t easy and sometimes challenging but I am going into my fifth year at Barakah and I love it."

The Barakah nuclear power plant connected to the UAE grid for the first time last month. The National
The Barakah nuclear power plant has connected to the UAE grid for the first time.

Her proudest moment was when the reactor was switched on at the end of July.

"You can’t imagine how it felt when we first turned on the plant on the eve of Eid at around 1:15am. I told my family that I had already celebrated Eid and in my mind this was why – this moment was historical. I had been waiting for nine years ever since I joined the Enec scholarship programme."

Ms Al Dhaheri is hugely proud of the Emiratis working at Barakah. "I say to them, do not stop and keep going as you are the key factor for the success of our nation."

And for her, family remain her main support. "I come from a somewhat conservative family but our education is a red line. When I first told my father that I would join this field, he said: 'I am with you till the last moment. I am your biggest supporter. If I keep you at home and close all the windows and doors because I am afraid that something will happen to you and God wills for something to happen, then it will happen no matter what I do. Why should I break your wings when I invested so much to make them grow so when that time comes for you to fly, do you think I will hold you back? That is impossible. Go study and give back to your country and when you do give, give your utmost'."

She wants all Emirati women to know the Barakah story. "The scientific achievements that women are contributing to at Barakah. It is amazing. It is history in the making.

"We are not building nuclear power plants only, we are shaping the future of the nuclear industry in the country."

Badreya Al Marzooqi, 30, senior radioactive waste management engineer, at Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation

To say that Badreya Al Marzooqi is working outside of her comfort zone is an understatement. Ms Al Marzooqi joined Enec in 2015 and is the only woman in her team. "Four men and I am the fifth man," she says with a laugh.

Badreya Al Marzooqi. Courtesy: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation
Badreya Al Marzooqi. Courtesy: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation

"The travels which I had to be part of when I first joined as a nuclear fuel quality surveillance engineer required sometimes for me to work abroad and in countries that were very cold because of the fuel inspections to make sure that what’s being shipped to the UAE is as per the highest standards.

"I had to work with my colleagues for extra hours and sometimes in places that were 20 degrees below zero where I had to wrap my shayla around my face to feel some warmth," she said, of trips to South Korea. The nuclear programme is joint undertaking between Enec and Kepco, the Korean Electric Power Company. "But we overcame these challenges and didn't skip a single step in the inspection process." She said that women should have confidence in their abilities.

I had to work in places where I had to wrap my shayla around my face for warmth

Badreya Al Marzooqi, engineer

"Women have to learn from mistakes and not feel discriminated against even if she works in an industry that is used to be dominated by men."

Her current role requires developing a national programme for the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

"We are transparent with the public and we get questions about how we will ultimately dispose of the waste. What I can say is, rest assured that the leaders of our nation will make a decision that is safe.

"This country gave us a lot and the leaders work tirelessly for our comfort, happiness and satisfaction. The least we can do as women is give them our best."

Amal Al Nuaimi, 34, continuous improvement process manager at Nawah Energy Company

Amal Al Nuaimi joined the nuclear program in 2009 - just a year after the project was announced. The big switch on was a moment she savoured.

"I joined when everything was a plan on paper and now we are celebrating this tangible achievement. I am honoured to be part of this exceptional achievement. Nawah has given all the support to all Emirati women whether they are working in the technical or administrative roles.

Amal Al Nuaimi. Courtesy: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation
Amal Al Nuaimi. Courtesy: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation

"As an Emirati woman, we have earned trust from our leadership and we are blessed with the amount of efforts and initiatives being taken to empower women. Our characteristics as Emirati women are that we are determined, patient and hard-working,"

On Emirati Women’s Day, she said her message is this: "You have to be proud of the contributions you have given as daughters, sisters, mothers, wives and citizens. My message to our Emirati women is create your growth path, seize opportunities and get yourself out of your comfort zone. And lastly, leave a footprint wherever you go so you can have a legacy to be remembered by.”

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Emirati Women's Day: Inspiring stories from the women who help shape the UAE

Updated: August 28, 2020 11:15 AM

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