A New Direction

Given the present economic situation facing most Gulf states, that of low global oil prices accompanied by the burden of massive socio-economic subsidies, I was excited to see that the UAE government yesterday announced a number of decisions that will, irreversibly and irrevocably, shift Emirati society and its future in a new and positive direction.

To digress slightly… Two stories have appeared on the Arabian Business.com website since July 2015, that, at first sight, do not appear to be linked.

The earlier article bemoans the lack of skills of Emirati school-leavers, highlighting a misalignment of the needs of employers and the expectations of young Nationals.

The more recent one, from yesterday, comes from HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum as he announced plans to outsource most government tasks to the private sector and cut the number of ministries. He also announced the formation of a single education ministry, abolishing the current Ministry of Higher Education.

The two articles, however, are closely linked. I believe that the announcements made yesterday, with some commentators calling them the most profound since the formation of the country in 1971, may begin to tackle some of the key issues within Emirati society that produces a cadre of young men and women, arriving at the doorstep of their careers, seemingly devoid of the requisite soft-skills necessary for a successful entry into the workplace. However, soft-skills should not be seen as a substitute for specific technical skills and knowledge – as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills reported in 2009, soft-skills “can make the difference between being good at a subject and being good at doing a job”.

For many Emiratis entering the private sector for the first time, the experience can be likened to a ‘cultural border crossing’ as they move from their predominantly Arab life-world to a foreign workplace based upon mainly Western business models and values. The failure by the employer to create a ‘sense of belonging’ (involvement, engagement, and integration) for Emirati staff will lead to people pulling away from the organization in a sequence of defined stages of departure, ending in a letter of resignation.

Much of the difficulty surrounding the border crossing experience is the perceived lack of soft-skills that young Emiratis appear to lack due to issues related to parenting and schooling. Before dealing with the source of the problem, let us examine what skills appear to be in deficit.

Soft-skills deficits

In the article formerly alluded from July 2015, the writer highlights a mismatch between private sector employers’ requirements and potential Emirati employees’ career expectations. The skill deficits identified by employers are a lack of work experience, communications skills (English and Arabic), and required skills and qualifications.

Other sources, including the print media and academic researchers, have additionally described deficits in mental toughness (lack of confidence, control, persistence and resilience), time and task management, teamwork, and critical thinking and problem solving.

In common with youth around the world, Emiratis also share many of the attributes of the so-called ‘millenials’ – they are technologically smart, are tuned in to social media, and have high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of their careers and life in general.

On the other hand, many young Emiratis appear to be quite different to the average global millennial in areas such as a lack of self-confidence, a lack of a sense of control over their lives, and low optimism about the future.

The importance of family

The UAE is no longer a homogenous society. In the past, each generation of new Arab children was a carbon copy of their parents with little if no diversity within each generational cohort. The young mostly thought the same and behaved the same, the result of an effective transference of important Arab values and soft-skills to the next generation.

With the arrival of millions of foreign workers from around the world to assist the Trucial States and eventually the UAE in extracting the oil and building the country’s infrastructure, the impact upon the local Emirati society resembled a ‘cultural tsunami’, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Now young Emiratis are being brought up very differently from their parents. On one hand, there remain many families that continue to adhere to traditional family life which supports the transfer of Arabic values and important soft-skills to the next generation. At the opposite end, massive social subsidies combined with high public sector salaries has allowed many Emirati parents to employ foreign nannies and maids to assist in raising their children, inadvertently disrupting the Arabic values transfer process. The closeness and unity of the Arab family has additionally been tested with parents increasingly spending more time away from their children, sometimes resulting in situations where children return from school to an empty house with one or both parents working away during the week in another emirate. And there are many families that fit somewhere in between these two examples.

With little supervision, children appear to be raising themselves, making poor choices in nutrition and exercise that have produced some of the highest rates of child obesity and associated Type II diabetes in the world.

When the young Emiratis, raised mostly by foreign nannies and maids, enter the national school system, they are taught by teachers using teacher-centric methods which value rote memorisation (basm), learning to just pass a test, and not to question the teacher.

The love of learning and knowledge for its own sake is lost in a system focussed only on pass rates – reading is viewed as a poor substitute to smartphones and iPads.

Thus, the soft-skills missing in young Emirati job-seekers have arisen from families that now value non-traditional items. The learning of soft-skills that should occur at home and then reinforced at school is simply not happening as it did in the past.

Leaving the high school system as quickly as they can, they head straight for parts of the public sector which appear to place low professional demands on individuals, training and lifelong learning is reduced to a tick box process, and conformity is valued above innovation.

As a result, the private sector in the UAE is made up of only 0.55% Emiratis compared to over 60% in the public sector.

This is unsustainable.

A Charter for a New Direction

Here you will find a number of statements that, by and large, follow the spirit and intention of yesterday’s announcements by the UAE government.

They are mostly concerned with the process of creating a generation of “…knowledgeable and innovative Emiratis [building]… a resilient economy, [thriving]… in a cohesive society bonded to its identity, and [enjoying] the highest standards of living within a nurturing and sustainable environment”, the key vision statement from the 2021 Vision:

  • The responsibility for child-raising lies primarily with Emirati parents and the community in which they live. It is not an activity that can easily be outsourced to foreign workers
    • Reduce Emirati parents’ dependence on foreign housemaids and nannies by restricting residency visas and increasing costs. This may coincide with public information campaigns informing the long-term social benefits of active engagement and hands-on parenting of Emirati parents
    • Encourage greater participation in parenting workshops for all Emirati married couples that focuses on culturally-sensitive and modern active parenting techniques
    • Provide extra early childhood education centres and financial incentives for Emirati parents to enrol their children
  • Make some difficult decisions regarding the national education system, in particular addressing the poor standard of teaching and teachers in the government high schools – over 70% of Emirati families in Dubai send their children to private schools
  • The authorities now responsible for private education in the country, though highly aspirational and passionate about improving learning outcomes, are undermining their vision through an insistence on using English as the medium of instruction and use of external validation tests such as PIRLS and TIMSS to restrict instructional delivery diversity
  • Restore the dignity of the value of effort and labour by re-connecting the link to reward and payment through the discontinuance of policies such as inflated salary and benefits increases for government workers, erasing private debt, and large-scale recruitment by government agencies
  • Equalize the salary and benefit conditions between the private and public sectors which will facilitate greater movement of Emirati employees to the private sector from which the thousands of new jobs will emerge to provide meaningful and fulfilling employment for the country’s growing numbers of Emirati youth
  • Make all higher education colleges and universities more accountable through a rigorous accreditation process by an independent authority and insist upon public sharing of resource allocations, budgets, salaries and benefits of staff, faculty and student numbers, and exam results in an open online database system similar to CHEDS
  • Implement all of the Government’s initiatives announced on 9 February

This is not an overnight fix – these measures and many others not included here will take at least a generation to work through. In so doing, the country will finally realise the great dreams and hopes of its founding father, HE Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, as he recognized the value and honoured the contribution of his country’s former human inhabitants living in a harsh land that no one else wanted:
“Thanks to our ancestors who challenged the adversities of time and the misfortunes of life. Due to their fortitude, our generation is living in prosperity and grace” (Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, 2011).

A final word to the private sector

Everything mentioned here presents the private sector in the UAE with enormous opportunities. But there is plenty of work to do if the private sector wants to capture the potential benefits.

Firstly, Emiratis are special and merit becoming one of the drivers towards workforce segmentation. They are special because demographically, they now represent just over 10% of the total UAE population with total Emirati numbers of just under 1 million.

They also bring a unique perspective of Emirati society, local insights and connections, and knowledge of regional business practices.

However, acknowledging their special position within organisations poses equity issues that need to be addressed with non-Emirati staff.

This form of positive discrimination is not unprecedented globally. New Zealand, for example, has been working hard to provide educational and career opportunities to its indigenous population, the Maori.

Secondly, the private sector needs to do a much better job at creating an organisational culture friendly to Emirati employees – it needs to re-tool organizational culture to meet higher levels of expectation, of performing meaningful work, of feeling a ‘sense of belonging’ to a family, of being inspired by visionary leaders, and of career pathways that result in promotion of Emirati staff.


Emarise has a particular interest in Nationalisation efforts in the UAE, assisting both Emiratis and private sector companies and organisations to facilitate smoother recruitment and onboarding of Nationals that leads to improved long-term retention.

Backed by doctoral-level research which described the difficult cultural border crossings experienced by young Emiratis as they make the transition from high school to colleges and universities of higher education, Dr. Peter Hatherley-Greene, Emarise Principal and Director of Learning, has 20 years experience working with organisations in the GCC on cultural-change and specialises in supporting organisations to overcome the unique challenges and to capture the opportunities which Emiratisation presents.

Dr Peter J. Hatherley-Greene
Director of Learning, Emarise
10 February 2016