True grit: How an Emirati woman beat paralysis to fulfill her dreams

Laila Bin Hareb Almheiri pushed past every hurdle to work in key positions at top government departments before becoming an entrepreneur


Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 3:10 PM

Last updated: Sun 12 Feb 2023, 5:30 PM

Laila Bin Hareb Almheiri had two choices when complications arising from a severe case of encephalitis left her paralysed in 2002: Go with the flow, or swim against the current.

The Emirati software engineer chose the latter. Using the limitless power of hope and resilience, she overcame her debilitating medical condition, and went on to head key positions at top government departments in the UAE.

In an illustrious career spanning 30 years, Laila has worked in managerial and directorial roles at Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), Road Transport Authority (RTA) and the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).

Now a serial entrepreneur with business interests in cyber security, event management and holistic healthcare, the multi-talented single mother recounted her extraordinary journey in a freewheeling interview with Khaleej Times.

“Nothing is impossible if you set your heart to it,” said Laila. “For one year I remained wheelchair bound. Those were the darkest days of my life, but I never gave up hope, and pushed past every hurdle that came my way with sheer grit.”

Laila began her career with DEWA in 1994 after getting a bachelors degree in software engineering. She started off as a trainee but rose through the ranks to become a senior manager.

"I was happy until the paralysis brought my world crashing down. Suddenly I found my entire life turned upside down. I lost the ability to move my limbs but not my resolve and faith. With each day they grew only stronger. Over time, I made a complete recovery. It was a miracle."

Once she was back on her feet, Laila joined the RTA as director of strategic planning and corporate performance. Following the successful launch of Dubai Metro in 2009, she quit the job and joined the GCAA, where she worked for more than 10 years as assistant director general.

Laila played a key role in transforming the GCAA, and scaling its operations to international standards.

She was the UAE’s lead negotiator for air transport agreements and economic regulations, and also founded the authority’s commercial wing to provide consultancy and training services in aviation safety, security, air transport, corporate development, strategic planning and organisational development. Under her, the GCCA won the prestigious Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Government Award for the best strategic planning in a government entity.

Laila was recognised as one of the 70 Inspiring Women of the World by the International Aviation Women’s Association, and won a Stevie Award in 2014 for her contribution to aviation. She was also recognised by Dubai Quality Group in 2015 as one of the leading female professionals in the aviation industry.

Curiously, Laila had little understanding of the industry when she joined GCAA in 2010.

She recalled how everybody stared at her in disbelief when she raised her hand during a senior management aviation course in Singapore, and asked the speaker what he meant by the term “airplane taxiing.”

“I am a life-long learner with a child like curiosity. I joined the course as a novice but gained the respect of my peers when I passed it with [a] distinction,” said Laila, who later obtained an MBA degree in general aeronautics, aviation, aerospace science, and technology, and went on teach aviation management to director generals outside the UAE.

She retired in 2019, but a personal tragedy spurred her to make a foray into holistic healthcare.

“In 2018, I lost my mother to a heart ailment caused by suspected sleep apnea. She could have been still with us if she were diagnosed and treated on time,” said Laila, who recently founded the Alive Holistic and Medical Rehabilitation Centre.

Located in Mirdif, the medical facility offers a wide range of holistic health care services, including alternative therapies to help treat sleep apnea.

“The greatest businesses came from a need to help others,” said Laila. “I want to make holistic healthcare accessible and affordable for everyone. For 30 years, I served my country and its people as a government employee. Now I want to do that as an entrepreneur in an extremely vital area: public health.”


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