With foreign workers making up the bulk of private sector jobs in the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf’s second-largest economy wants to boost opportunities for its own citizens.
The UAE – like other oil and gas-rich Arab Gulf states – has often used the public sector as an employment vehicle for its nationals.
But times are changing, said 34-year-old Emirati researcher Khalifa al-Suwaidi, who has himself been looking for a private sector job since quitting a government post in June.
“We’ve reached a point where we have a diversity among Emiratis in terms of skill sets and expertise,” said al-Suwaidi.
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“The public sector can no longer accommodate many of those talents.”
Just 12 percent of the country’s more than nine million residents are UAE nationals, with at least 90 percent of private sector jobs taken by foreigners, according to International Labour Organization figures.
Al-Suwaidi, author of a forthcoming book titled The UAE after the Arab Spring, said he believed some employers overlooked his application because they presumed an Emirati would demand the high wages often paid in lucrative government posts.
“The private sector needs to be more accommodating,” he said. “I’ve been applying for jobs for a while to no avail.”
The government is now strong-arming private firms into hiring local talent, with the aim of ensuring Emiratis make up 10 percent of the private sector workforce by 2026.
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Next month, firms with more than 50 employees that fail to fill two percent of their skilled jobs with Emiratis face being fined.
That has sparked a hiring drive, with recruiters noting a “flood of vacancies” from companies – many of which will not be able to meet their targets.
“It’s going to be a tough run,” said Hamza Zaouali, the founder of recruitment agency Iris Executives, but noting it was “not possible” for the UAE government to keep growing and hiring.
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“The more sustainable way is to make sure the economy continuously absorbs, trains and works with Emiratis,” Zaouali said.
It is part of a wider trend, said Eman Alhussein, a non-resident fellow with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The UAE is joining “a larger push in the Gulf to change the dynamics of state-society relations” and wean citizens away from government jobs, she said.
“Gulf states want citizens to alter their expectations, give back to the state and accept jobs with longer hours and perhaps reduced income,” Alhussein said.
In November, the UAE’s minister of human resources and emiratisation, Abdulrahman al-Awar, said that more than 14,000 Emiratis had entered the job market in 2022, with an average of 100 finding jobs each day.
The government also announced a salary support scheme that provides Emiratis in the private sector with up to 7,000 dirhams ($1,900) extra if monthly wages are less than 30,000 dirhams.
There is no national minimum wage for Emiratis, but in Sharjah, one of the country’s seven emirates, they are entitled to a monthly minimum of AED 25,000.
The UAE, a top regional hub for multinational companies, ranked among the 10 richest countries in the world in 2020, according to the United Nations.
In 2022, it boasted a per capita gross domestic product of more than $47,000, higher than Britain and France, according to the International Monetary Fund.
It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Middle East, but data on nationwide joblessness among Emiratis is not publicly available.
In the UAE’s financial hub Dubai, Emirati unemployment rose from 2.5 percent in 2012 to 4.2 percent in 2019, according to the Dubai Statistics Center.
Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati researcher at the University of Oxford, said “discontent” has been brewing, especially after laws capping foreign ownership of firms at 49 percent were scrapped last year.
“In the past, Emiratis who were not keen to join the private sector had the option to wait for a public sector job, start their own business, or become the 51 percent local partner in a business,” she said.
“The drying up of these multiple sources … has narrowed down the options available.”
Debate on the issue shot to attention this month after an advertisement inviting Emiratis to apply for a “sandwich maker” job at the Subway restaurant chain sparked social media criticism, prompting a government probe into the “contentious” post.
“The lack of administrative, financial and technical jobs has led to ‘sandwich maker’… Oh, what an age!” read one popular Twitter post.