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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Summit looks at perfect future balance between Emirati and expat workforces 

Security conference discusses need for economic security, to boost numbers of UAE nationals and become more self-sufficient

A group of young Emirati women attend a careers fair in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National
A group of young Emirati women attend a careers fair in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National

The UAE’s large foreign workforce and small number of Emiratis is presenting the country with a unique problem – how to plan for an uncertain future?

That was the subject of debate among academics and government officials yesterday at a security summit looking at how the UAE can ensure it is prepared for the years to come.

Experts spoke of the strength the country has gained by welcoming expatriates from around the globe, but also the economic realities of being so reliant on a transient population.

“The demographic problem existed centuries ago so we can’t expect to solve it in a few years. It could take decades,” said Dr Salem Humaid, chairman of the Al Mezmaah Studies and Research Centre think tank.

Dr Humaid told an Abu Dhabi event organised by the Ministry of Defence that the UAE had the fifth largest percentage of foreign workers in the world.

The largest group, at more than 40 per cent, is from the Indian subcontinent. Emiratis constitute about 12 per cent of the population.

That situation is regarded as an economic threat and one major concern is “reverse migration”.

“In 2008, when the economic crisis happened, many companies closed down and we saw reverse migration,” Dr Humaid said. “That was a clear, apparent repercussion to having a large foreign workforce.”

A large portion of the economy is led by foreign workers and in many cases private companies are led by foreigners, he said.

“We need to train UAE nationals the skills to take over these companies,” Dr Humaid said.

He said that in the future, artificial intelligence would replace some of the jobs occupied by low-skilled foreign labourers, meaning the country would not employ the “huge numbers we have now”.

The problem is further compounded by a falling birth rate among Emiratis.

Dr Humaid told the audience that without intervention, the proportion of Emiratis in the population would fall to 5 per cent within the next two ­decades.

“The Government should intervene and boost [birth numbers] by offering financial incentives to couples who conceive,” he said.

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“And to create a sense of loyalty, there should be more efforts to encourage expatriates to blend in with the culture and community.”

Another speaker, Fahad AlMheiri, executive director of business development at the arms maker Emirates Defence Industries, said: “We are a rarity in our own country.

“We are a minority but because of the leadership of the country, we stand strong, patriotic and proud that we are UAE nationals and state that we are local to this country.”

Maj Gen Falah Al Qahtani, assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Defence said that the large expatriate workforce should not be seen as a sign of weakness for the country but a source of economic strength.

“We have to adopt the concept of ‘a united force’,” he said, in which every Emirati and Emirati-owned company works “side by side” with expatriates and foreign companies “to achieve the greatest outcome to benefit the country”.