Talking to Dr Suaad Al Shamsi, the UAE’s first female Emirati Aircraft Engineer, is like being hit with a jolt of electricity. She’s brimming with energy, eager to respond to all our queries and enthusiastic to a point, it rubs off on us. You come away from the conversation with a feeling you can take on the world.
Way back in 1998 when Suaad applied for an aeronautical course in the UK, little did the thought that she would go on to be a trailblazer in the industry cross her mind. Today Dr Suaad is feted as the UAE’s first female aviation engineer, a pioneer who is an inspiration not just for Emirati women, but for women across the world looking to break the glass ceiling in pursuit of their passion.
A published author, with another book on the way, Suaad is currently an aviation consultant for Abu Dhabi’s new Midfield Terminal, one of the biggest airport terminals in the world. When we catch up with her over a Zoom interview she is happy to have found a quiet place away from the construction buzz around her.
Dreams come first
Looking back at her early years in the industry she reminisces; “All I wanted was to be in the aviation industry, near to the aircraft. I never wanted to be the first or the second or a unique woman who breaks barriers and paves the path for others to enter the aviation industry. All I wanted was for my dream to come true.”
She recollects when she was informed she was the first Emirati to actually study aeronautical engineering, she took a moment to let it sink in. She was more than ready to be an aeronautical engineer, but was she ready to be a role model?
It was at that moment that she realised her responsibility as the first aircraft engineer in the United Arab Emirates. She went on to specialise in the landing gear department, a vital section of the aircraft that even qualified men shied away from, since it was a high-pressure job.
But over 20 years later today she stands tall as a beacon of what women in this region can achieve and a pathbreaker for women wanting to pursue their passion, but held back by traditional mores and ties.
“I’m happy that a lot of women are inspired by me,” she tells us, “and I wish I can give as much as I can even after my retirement!”
Following one’s passion
As someone who has bravely followed her passion, Dr Suaad believes the only thing holding women back from any vocation they chose to be a part of, is their mind. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” she asserts. And if you don’t push yourself to achieve your dream, she adds, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
All women have dreams, she explains, but many are held back because they are conditioned to believe society will not accept them. “I do believe that any dream is meant to be… no dictionary says this dream is only for women and that dream is only for men.”
While she doesn’t vocalise any opposition, if any, she may have faced for her bold career choice, she is clear that once you make up your mind, nothing can or should stop you from following through. Fight for your passion, she continues, and once you attain it, the happiness you gain is indescribable.
The last few decades have seen women occupying positions of power across the world’s boardrooms as well as political and sporting arenas. We see them all around us leading the path as teachers, frontline workers, mothers, wives, primary carers etc.
“I do believe a woman is born to be a leader, she has the capability to run a lot of things,” says Dr Suaad. “If a woman can run a house with children and husband; if she can be a daughter and multi task, I believe she can run a company; she can be the head of any department,” she adds.
“She is born ready to be a leader.” But the problem she says is when there is no opportunity or confidence that the woman can be a leader. “In the UAE thankfully, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai; and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and all our leaders believe in the woman.”
The problem she says is with people’s mentality. “We need to be a leader, we need to give opportunities to women.”
“Any woman who runs her own house can easily be the head of a company, or the CEO; she may even be better than a man in that position. She only needs to be provided with an opportunity.”
That she is not content to sit on her laurels is obvious from Suaad’s career path. Besides holding a DBA and an MBA in Aviation Management, a degree in AeroSpace Engineering, an honorary doctorate for her work in supporting and empowering women in aviation, she has also worked alongside many companies in aviation and engineering in the UAE.
She is also a regular judge for the national edition of the James Dyson Awards, an international design competition for students and graduates from the UAE, a role that’s very close to her heart.
“What I love about it is the creativity and innovation behind the concept of the award,” she explains. As a jury member her focus she says is on honing in on the students’ creativity, and encouraging their problem-solving skills, which can benefit society at large.
“We are there to judge and choose the right product that can serve society, that people can use; how creative is the innovation, how different from other products in the market is what we focus on. As a jury member I’m looking for problem-solving ideas that can be used in day-to-day life,” she explains.
Innovation, she says, is key to any society’s progress. And for that, she adds, we need to nurture a generation who can think out of the box, create products that can ease life in the future.
She points out how Covid has impacted our lives and made many things, which were earlier thought of as essential, redundant. “If we will keep copying the older generation, we will never grow up, we will never change, we will never be different.”
With the aviation sector badly affected globally by Covid, Dr Suaad is hopeful things will change for the better soon. She asserts the industry will bounce back stronger and safer with all requisite safety measure in place to keep passengers safe and secure.
As a mother to two young boys, she says her priority has always been to teach them to respect women and her dreams. She talks with pride about their awe when she returns home in her work gear — safety uniform and helmet firmly in place.
“This is the right age to show boys that they need to support women, just like women support them. Wherever you see a woman’s dream, you have to support her, you have to be her right hand.” And with an accomplished woman like her around, it is easy to see how a new generation of boys will grow knowing that with their support and respect even the sky is not the limit.
3 tips for women
Dream. If you can dream it, you can do it.
Be confident. Trust yourself.
Enjoy your life and do what you love and wear whatever you want — when you wear a uniform and safety shoes, enjoy it; when you are wearing your high heels, put on your lipstick and enjoy!
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