UAE: How Emiratis are shining in the private sector

Dubai - Here is what some citizens have to say about the Nafis programme and the general trend of UAE nationals entering the private workforce


Dhanusha Gokulan

Published: Mon 27 Sep 2021, 2:56 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 Sep 2021, 3:03 PM

From working as inclusivity and diversity chiefs in global financial service providers to setting up a region-wide private healthcare network, Emiratis have been breaking several cultural stereotypes to succeed in the private sector.

A few weeks ago, the UAE Government launched the Nafis programme, an Emirati talent optimisation scheme to ensure greater participation of UAE nationals in the private sector as part of its ‘Projects of the 50’ initiative.

Since then, existing Emirati private sector leaders have said the project could not have come at a better time.

Here is what some Emiratis employed in the private sector have to say about the Nafis programme and the general trend of UAE nationals entering the private workforce.

Alia Al Nuaimi, diversity and inclusiveness lead consultant, Ernst and Young

Alia Al Nuaimi holds an exciting job title with global professional services provider Ernst and Young. She works as a diversity and inclusiveness lead consultant with the company, a position she has held since February 2020.

Born in Dubai, Al Nuaimi studied finance and management from the American University in Sharjah. “I graduated in 2010 and joined Emirates Airlines in 2011 as a revenue optimisation flight and demand analyst,” she told Khaleej Times.

Shift to private sector

As much as she enjoyed working for Dubai’s flag carrier, she felt like she needed more out of her career.

“I felt like this isn’t me. I completed my Co-Active Training Institute coaching certification in 2018 since coaching, mentoring and people development came more naturally to me,” she said. “After working in Emirates for a year, I was craving for more."

Al Nuaimi applied to Ernst and Young a year and a half ago, and from the moment she sent her CV until now, Al Nuaimi said she has found a platform to be creative.

“I feel like I am in a place where I belong,” she said.

As the lead diversity and inclusiveness consultant, Al Nuaimi oversees the career paths of UAE nationals across the MENA region. “

My team and I look into the recruitment of development of talented nationals and how they can give back to the business and community,” she said. Her work revolves around a clear female and employee well-being agenda.

‘It’s not that complicated’

Commenting on the stereotypes about Emiratis in the private sector, Al Nuaimi said, “These are common social misconceptions among UAE nationals, including many of our parents. There is a belief that work in the private sector is hard and involves several long hours. In the beginning, even I felt like I couldn’t do it. But that’s seldom the case.”

At the onset, Al Nuami feared the work would affect her personal life. “I was newlywed, and I assumed things like my career would ruin my marriage. Luckily, I am married to a guy who is working in the private sector. We push each other to work better,” she said.

A positive support system in the workplace, teamwork and her colleagues’ collective expertise makes the job much more manageable, said Al Nuaimi.

Moreover, the collective perceptions are fast-changing. “We are becoming more spiritually, mentally and physically aware of global cultures,” she said.

She added that building relations in the government sector is much easier while working within the system, and while being in the private sector, Emiratis directly contribute to nation-building.

“Through various projects, we are actively giving back to the country’s economy,” she added.

How will the Nafis programme help?

“It is a very positive initiative. We have already begun creating strategies to hit the targets set as part of the programme. At Abu Dhabi, we are already in at 14 per cent nationalisation, and Dubai is at six per cent,” she said.

However, Al Nuaimi is not worried about the numbers as she advises young Emiratis not to think twice about joining the private sector.

“I do not regret joining this workforce. Every day is different, and not one day goes by when I am not researching or learning something new. I wish for young UAE nationals to build curiosity and not to judge.”

Word of advice to young Emiratis: “Do not be fearful, and you can still give back to the country by being in the private sector. You will be able to influence Emirati culture in a global organisation, and the expatriates here will be able to learn more through you,” she said.

Majed Al Mesmari, senior country officer and head of investment banking for UAE at JP Morgan

When asked how Al Mesmari found his way to the top of the private sector career ladder, he said the secret to his achievements is that he got lucky. However, that is far from the truth as Al Mesmari adopted a tried and tested approach to success — hard work and perseverance.

He advised young Emiratis not to be afraid or hesitant to explore something different. “I come from the Eastern part of the country. I was born in and finished my school education in Fujairah,” he told Khaleej Times.

“Particularly in the early days of this nation, people in the rest of the Emirates, were, for lack of a better word, less fortunate compared to their counterparts in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. There were not those many opportunities as compared to now,” said Al Mesmari.

The older son of highly educated parents, Al Mesmari, completed most of his formal education in the UAE.

“I completed all my schooling in Fujairah government schools, and during various instances, while growing up, I got good exposure, particularly when it came to learning languages,” said Al Mesmari.

The struggle to break through

Majed did a six-month internship at the Dubai Financial Market (DFM), making it his first exposure to finance and investment. He moved to Etisalat afterwards, where he worked in a small team that contributed to designing, structuring and distributing the UAE’s first high speed residential internet services.

At Etisalat, he worked on projects with companies such as McKinsey.

“Back then, international firms were not mindful when it came to hiring UAE nationals. There was no requirement from a nationalisation point of view,” said Al Mesmari. “Back then, the access or the possibilities for Emiratis to enter the private sector did not exist. We didn’t know anyone who could help."

The lack of a formal career advisory system in college and post-university also caused setbacks in what could’ve ideally been a natural career movement for Al Mesmari. After five years with Etisalat, he moved to Dubai International Financial Markets, where he interacted with several CEOs of international banks.

In September 2006, he formally forayed into the private sector by joining HSBC and was one of the first Emiratis to work in an advisory capacity at the bank. In 2008, during the height of the global financial crisis, he joined Rothschild, a financial advisory boutique firm and and moved to JP Morgan in the September of 2014, where he now is the senior country officer and head of investment banking for the UAE.

Looking back at his career trajectory, Al Mesmari believes the Nafis initiative is critical and much-needed.

“Over the years, there has been some form of hesitancy among UAE nationals to work in the private sector. Being employed by the government would mean you are well paid, and the work environment is a more familiar one,” he said.

However, he wanted to be in a zone that offered minimal comfort. “It’s the only way to get the best of your intellectual capabilities. I believe young UAE nationals can find their way to doing interesting things while with the private sector,” said Al Mesmari.

Smashing misconceptions

Commenting on the common perception that Emiratis find it challenging to fit into an international culture, Al Mesmari said, “That’s untrue. We are 10 per cent of the indigenous population in the UAE. If we can coexist with 90 per cent of foreigners peacefully, then Emiratis can work in private companies.”

Moreover, he believes that the level of hesitancy among Emiratis to work in the private sector has diminished over the last couple of years.

“Times have changed. Now you have several Emiratis working in global brands, the likes of Cisco and Microsoft. There is more interest among young Emiratis. I get approached by several young Emiratis through LinkedIn expressing a desire to get advice on how to work for an international brand,” he explained.

While only time can tell the possibility of success of the Nafis programme, Al Mesmari said the project’s prospects are promising. “It is very encouraging for young people to go through it. However, only time will tell if it will be a success. I am an optimist by nature,” he added.

Word of advice to young Emiratis: “Don’t be afraid or hesitant to explore something different. As it is obvious elsewhere, young people are greatly influenced by background, parents and their tribe. I would tell them not to be hesitant and to get out of their comfort zone.”

Dr Haidar Al Yousuf, managing director of Al-Futtaim Health

Dr Haidar Al Yousuf is one of the most prominent personalities in the UAE healthcare industry. He is currently spearheading the overall functions and expansion plans of Al-Futtaim Health’s healthcare division.

After an illustrious career with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) as the director of Health Funding, he was one of the key architects involved in the design and successful implementation of the health insurance system of the Emirate of Dubai (ISAHD) and the mandatory health insurance law for Dubai.

His efforts enabled achieving total healthcare coverage for the population in three years and regulating one of the most recognised health systems in the region.

However, despite the many successes in government, Dr Al Yousuf was encouraged to make the jump into the private sector.

Chasing new challenges

“For me, it is always about new challenges. I have built my legacy and implemented many initiatives successfully with the DHA. Things were moving at a steady phase. However, even during my tenure at the DHA, I realised there is a need for healthcare services being offered at a reasonable price,” he said.

When Al-Futtaim Health offered him the opportunity to make that dream a reality, he took six months to mull over his decision.

“I was their very first employee, and I walked in well knowing that I have to build something from scratch. I had to create a strategy, a model healthcare structure. After three years, we have built 20 clinics with 900 members of staff,” Dr Al Yousuf said.

Commenting on what encouraged Dr Al Yousuf to make that jump, he said, “I felt that it was a good project to go on. Al-Futtaim is a very reputable local company and an excellent homegrown brand. Apart from that, there were several other encouraging factors for moving on with it, including the opportunity to create one of the largest healthcare organisations in the region from scratch.”

Today, the group is aggressively expanding in Northern Emirates, Abu Dhabi, and will soon open its first clinic in Egypt.

Seeking competitive roles

Moreover, since the launch of the Nafis programme, Dr Al Yousuf is now planning an aggressive strategy to hire more UAE nationals into the company.

“More UAE nationals in the private workforce will contribute significantly towards nation-building. Currently, the banking sector has a lot of Emiratis, and they have done well. There are very few UAE nationals in the healthcare sector. Doctors don’t work in the private sector, and you don’t have too many allied healthcare professionals either. The project will change the way Emiratis work in the healthcare sector,” he said.

Dr Al Yousuf said disparities in the pay scale is a crucial challenge for Emiratis to enter the private market.

“Moreover, performance is a key objective for growth in the private sector. Cultural perceptions exist as well. However, I think young Emiratis need to apply themselves to work harder in the earlier stages of their life.”

He added, “I don’t think Emiratis would or should look for easier roles. They should look for competitive roles, and private has the space to provide that level of competitiveness.”

Word of advice to young Emiratis: “Do not shy away from perceived difficulties. Build a career as early as you can and reap the long-term benefits.”

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