The UAE, as many GCC countries, continues to face a dilemma between addressing the labour shortage of qualified UAE nationals and reducing the heavy dependence on expatriate labor. This particular challenge has generally formed a social perception that young UAE nationals (domestic and foreign trained) are neither qualified nor fit to hold leadership roles.
Consequently, young nationals have increasingly been underutilized and disempowered, leading to untapped human capital in the UAE labor market and a future generational challenge.
To contextualize the UAE’s relevance, it is essential to understand its strategic position within the Mena region, home to a population of 310 million and a GDP of $2.4 trillion in 2012. While the GCC represents 15 per cent of the population, it generates 60 per cent of the total GDP.
The UAE is the second largest economy in the region, serving as a critical economic hub between East and West. With its political stability, sound governance and modern infrastructure, the UAE has increasingly become a melting pot for all seeking economic opportunities and higher standards of living.
These achievements were built around strong government security and development policies. Therefore, to propel economic growth, utilizing the existing and emerging supply of UAE nationals is a critical human capital requirement.
Since the 1970s, the government and other quasi-government entities have established public universities to provide leadership and training programmes. For example, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research allocated over $1 billion in 2012 to provide scholarships and training opportunities abroad for UAE nationals.
Although this reflects the government’s strong commitment, why do young, high-skilled UAE nationals (particularly those foreign-trained) sometimes feel constrained to deliver in the labor market?
Two layers could explain why UAE nationals feel dislocated and underutilized in the local labor market. The first layer stems from the absence of a comprehensive policy process linking highly educated and experienced UAE nationals into the local workforce. While some government-initiative programmes assist in finding basic employment, they often achieve little to target, place or in some instances retain those highly experienced and trained UAE nationals.
Such entities become in some cases counter-productive to the leadership’s desire to harness the knowledge and training of UAE nationals. Hence, nationals must be systematically integrated based on selective, meritocratic criteria to maximize their development contribution.
The tensions between high-skilled expatriate labor and nationals constitute the second layer. With the government’s strong educational investment, the surge of young, highly-trained UAE nationals has increased, often challenging high-skilled expatriates and other UAE nationals’ expertise and the prevailing status quo. However, they appear to maintain bias views towards young UAE nationals’ capacity that both directly and indirectly reinforce these social norms to eliminate competition. This largely contributes to the ongoing dislocations of young highly trained UAE nationals.
Both layers reflect the existing challenge for a young generation of nationals in the labor market. While some have already achieved meaningful roles, some foreign expatriates and other UAE nationals continue to turn a blind eye on their growing presence, making us unaware about the type, scale, quality and capacity of young UAE nationals.
A meaningful and comprehensive policy – coupled with top management officials’ ethical commitment – should enable UAE nationals to become active development players. First, policymakers should increase their implementation capacity to systematically identify high-skilled nationals through inter-agency collaboration (i.e., Emirates ID, Ministry of Labor, etc.).
Second, develop public-private partnerships to genuinely re-think and provide pragmatic solutions to the existing dilemma, particularly in addressing wage differential. Such solutions will not only enhance labor market efficiency, but will also incentivize Emirati participation in private sector jobs.
Third, to improve state building efforts, create a sub-national government agency that will enable them to tap into local expertise and provide skilled career opportunities for young UAE professionals.
Finally, nothing would be achieved without the strong commitment and honesty from top senior management officials within the private and public domains.
The UAE has to look inwards by focusing on its untapped supply of young nationals. These policy recommendations are not only shared responsibilities between, and among, government officials, nationals and expatriates, but also serve as positive steps to enable the UAE to become a critical development agent globally.
Ali Al Youha is a Young Global Shaper (World Economic Forum). He holds an MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy (Oxford University) and BA Economics (Boston College).
Froilan Malit, Jr. holds MSc Migration Studies (Oxford University), MPA Public Administration/BA Industrial and Labor Relations (Cornell University).
This article appeared first in Gulf News.