There are currently about 4.1 million workers in the UAE. The public sector  is the main employer for locals and only 3 per cent of UAE graduates work in the private sector, an imbalance the government is trying to address.

Indeed, the lack of new jobs to match the ambitions and skills of educated Emiratis is now a major concern for teachers and policy-makers. But the solution to this problem is not obvious. Investment in education is certainly not lacking. The country has 1,190 schools and 80 per cent of students attending government schools are UAE nationals. The UAE’s expanding network of public universities and higher colleges of technology has been complemented by a vigorous growth of private sector institutions, heavily oriented towards meeting the demands of employers.

Yet, when academics, politicians and planners gathered this month at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies & Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi for a conference entitled, ‘Education and the Requirements of the GCC Labour Market’, almost every speech or intervention from the floor expressed concern at the size of the challenge facing the UAE and its neighbours.

Rising unemployment

The issue is particularly acute in the UAE, because the country’s spectacular economic growth over recent years has attracted so many migrants. The UN’s Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia (Escwa), said in a report published in November 2009 that migrants accounted for up to 90 per cent of the labour market in the UAE, up 20 percentage points from Escwa’s previous figure of 70 per cent in 2005.

Of course, employment in some sectors, such as construction, is always likely to be dominated by large numbers of expatriate workers, as locals are unlikely to  accept the pay and conditions offered by the sector.

Yet, there are many other areas of the economy that, in theory at least, offer substantial job opportunities to young Emiratis. The planned new cultural developments on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, for example, should offer many opportunities for educated Emiratis in arts management and curatorial posts. But there is often a mismatch between the terms these job-seekers are looking for and what the private sector is prepared to offer. And it is not clear exactly what changes are needed in schools and higher educational institutions to equip their charges to take up the employment options on offer.

Financial resources certainly do not pose a problem. But there is debate over how to tailor the shape of the education system to the needs of the economy, and how to encourage young Emiratis to take up the job opportunities.

The problem is summed up by Souad Sherif, assistant professor at the Sharjah University, who has carried out a study into unemployment among Emiratis. In most economies, she says, economic growth produces a fall in the number of jobless people, but this is not happening in the UAE. She found unemployment among locals has been rising, even though gross domestic product has been growing.

In effect, locals’ rate of participation in the workforce is in decline. Young Emiratis in particular have had difficulties adjusting to the changing labour market, as the public sector tightens up on recruitment.

Previously, almost all graduates used to work for the government. Even high school leavers without degrees were able to get good jobs, says Sherif. But today there are no longer the same openings in public service. “They have to look to the private sector; but the problem is the private sector is looking to maximise profits and reduce costs,” says Sherif.

Many of the available jobs do not offer the pay and conditions that locals are looking for. There have been cases where Emiratis who have trained to be managers, for example, settle for first jobs as secretaries, says Sherif.

But this is not always the case. “People have a high standard of living and won’t accept living at a lower level,” she says.

UAE Labour Minister Saqer Gubash Saeed Gubash says a mere 0.4 per cent of the private sector labour force is Emirati. His remarks at the ECSSR conference hinted at a government willingness to consider public subsidy as a way to make private sector jobs more acceptable to Emiratis.

“In the UAE, there is a ‘high standard of living allowance’, which is currently provided only to people working in the public sector,” he said. “But we should think about this. The Emiratis who work in the private sector are also nationals. Don’t they also have the same standard of living costs?”

It is surely no coincidence that – as Gubash pointed out – the business sector in which Emiratisation [representation of nationals within a company] is most advanced, at about 20 per cent, is financial brokerage, where salaries are relatively high.

Abdullah Saeed al-Darmaki, head of the Tawteen Council, which promotes Emiratisation, says rates of Emiratisation are currently about 18 per cent in the energy sector and just 1 per cent in tourism. In a move to encourage further Emiratisation, the Labour Ministry recently drafted a bill to extend living allowances to Emiratis working in the private sector, in order to encourage more nationals to take up jobs with private firms. Gubash certainly does not believe the public sector – which he describes as ‘saturated’ – can absorb the huge numbers of young locals, who will enter the employment market over the course of this decade. Escwa predicts the 15-24 age group will account for 13.3 per cent of the population in 2015, compared with 11.9 per cent this year. The proportion of Emiratis of working age has grown by 31 per cent between 2000 and 2008, the minister says.

Social factors complicate the situation, according to Gubash. “In the UAE, men can move in search of work from one emirate to another much more easily than ladies,” he said. More jobs that could suit unemployed women are available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai than in Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah; but some families are reluctant to let their unmarried daughters live away from home to take up such opportunities.

However, some social attitudes are rapidly becoming less of a constraint, one young Emirati woman in the conference audience told MEED. She said some companies are now building special accommodation blocks for single women, that have moved to Abu Dhabi and Dubai to work. However, she added some private sector firms complain school leavers are under-qualified, while at the same time turning away Emirati women with master’s degrees, claiming they are over-qualified.

Volunteer work

Nationals looking for work may need to improve their skills before they apply for long-term jobs, suggests Sherif. In contrast to their Western counterparts, Emirati students do not generally take up internships or low-paid holiday employment that will help to improve their employment credentials, she says.

“We have a new generation. They need to be educated about the culture of work, which we don’t have here,” she says. “We need to make them understand that it is not shameful to collect garbage or do any kind of job.”

Sherif suggests that volunteer schemes could be developed, in which students could help out in hospitals or do other community tasks. But, she says, this would require some form of pressure or incentive – such as credit towards their overall gradings as students – if they were to be persuaded to consider such options.

“Volunteering would have to be enforced indirectly, because we are not used to it. People will have to be pushed a bit,” she says.

Observers of the UAE’s education policy continue to express scepticism about whether nationals are prepared to join an organisation and work their way slowly up the promotion scale. But several participants at the ECSSR conference pointed out the popularity of the police and armed forces as career options for locals. These are organisations in which new recruits start at the bottom of the scale and work their way up the ladder over the years.

Ebtisam al-Kitbi, a political scientist from the UAE University in Al-Ain, is also concerned that too many students seek to enter higher education when it may not suit their abilities. “Our problem is that all school students want to go to university,” she says.

She thinks the UAE could learn from other countries in dealing with this issue: “Malaysia has shown that it is possible to advise children when they leave school on the most appropriate course to take.”

Beyond the question of social attitudes and the employment market, there is also a need for policy action on the purely educational front. UAE Education Minister Humaid Mohamed Obaid al-Qutami concedes there is a need for strategic planning to look at issues such as the development of curricula and the performance of teachers.

That is a view shared by many academics. In particular, there is widespread concern that teaching styles are still too heavily focused on the didactic delivery of information and traditional styles of learning, rather than the development of the critical analysis skills demanded by the modern competitive workplace.

“We need an appropriate education, an education that assimilates critical thinking, an education that encourages creation. This is what is lacking,” Al-Kitbi says.

She is keen to see the country become more effective at developing new thinking and knowledge rather than relying on outsiders to import their educational methods.

“We have an establishment that has been in place for decades to stimulate research. But in the UAE, we don’t have research. We rely on bringing in experts from abroad,” she says.

Consistency drive

Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the emirates, has embarked on a drive to bring greater coherence, consistency and focus to its universities.

Professor Jim Mienczakowski, head of higher education at the Abu Dhabi Education Council, speaks of a drive to establish clear and consistent standards, particularly among the dozen or so private universities that have sprung up in recent years as a complement to federal and emirate-sponsored public facilities.

The public sector is now relatively well developed and diversified. The federal authorities are responsible for UAE University, Zayed University and the 14 Higher Colleges of Technology, distributed throughout the UAE, and which provide a more technical and employment-focused alternative to university for those aged 16 and above. Also government-funded is the Khalifa University of Science, Technology & Research (Kustar).

These institutions are now complemented by a number of specialist institutions, established in close co-ordination with the federal or Abu Dhabi governments. Mienczakowski explains the specialist roles that these aim to fulfil in training a diverse workforce: the local offshoot of the French business school Insead has already launched training programmes and last year announced the Abu Dhabi launch of its global executive MBA programme. The Masdar Institute for Sustainable Technology, linked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will focus on new technologies to support sustainable development.

But Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is also keen to ensure that liberal arts education is not neglected as the emirate seeks to develop a role as a centre of cultural and intellectual activities. That was one of the main reasons for asking the Paris Sorbonne University – whose Abu Dhabi offshoot has already been operational for two and a half years – and New York University to establish a presence in the emirate. The latter is now evaluating students and will begin its first full undergraduate programme in the autumn of this year.

Abu Dhabihas also sought to reinforce vocational and technical education, Mienczakowski says. “In 2007-08, the government set up vocational training institutes in Abu Dhabi, Al-Gharbia and Al-Ain. This has been done in partnership with GTZ, the German training provider.”

This new priority dovetails with Abu Dhabi’s drive to develop high-tech industries such as avionics and environmental technology, which will diversify the range of employment opportunities. And certainly the new training centres have proved attractive to Emiratis.

“With the vocational educational and training institutes, we have certainly had a high level of success,” says Mienczakowski. “The pupils have been delighted to have the opportunity to pursue careers in technology.”

The success of Abu Dhabi’s drive to expand local enrolment in technical education suggests there is scope to substantially expand Emirati participation in the commercial and industrial workforce. However, this remains a major policy challenge, because of the high expectations of UAE citizens regarding pay and employment conditions.

In oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the government is preparing to pay subsidies to make private sector jobs more attractive for locals, but it is unclear whether this approach will be extended across the UAE as a whole. Even this most affluent of emirates only sees the subsidies as a temporary measure.

Once the private sector has to pick up the full costs of employing UAE nationals, it may be that Emiratisation advances most in sectors that cater for local demand, such as retail banking or utilities, where it does not really matter whether operating costs are competitive internationally.

In sectors such as tourism, which must compete in the international arena and therefore offer lower wages, it may be harder to boost employment of nationals significantly without undermining competitiveness within the sector.