With foreign workers making up the majority of private sector jobs in the UAE, the Gulf’s second largest economy is looking to improve opportunities for its own citizens.
The UAE – like other oil-rich Arab Gulf countries – has often used the public sector as a vehicle for employing its nationals.
But times are changing, said 34-year-old Emirati researcher Khalifa al-Suwaidi, who himself has been looking for a job in the private sector since quitting a government post in June.
“We have reached a point where we have diversity among Emiratis in terms of skills and expertise,” Suwaidi said.
“The public sector can no longer absorb a lot of this talent.”
Just 12 percent of the country’s more than nine million people are UAE nationals, with over 90 percent of private sector jobs held by foreigners, according to the International Labor Organization.
Suwaidi, author of a forthcoming book called UAE after the Arab Spring, said he believes some employers overlooked his application, assuming an Emirati would command the high wages often paid in lucrative government posts will.
“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 pushing private companies to hire local talent, with a goal of ensuring Emiratis make up 10% of the private sector workforce by 2026.
Over the next month, companies with more than 50 employees who fail to fill two percent of their qualified positions with Emiratis face fines.
That has sparked a hiring surge, with recruiters seeing a “job vacancy deluge” from companies – many of whom are failing to meet their goals.
“It’s going to be a tough run,” said Hamza Zaouali, founder of recruitment agency Iris Executives, but noting that the UAE government was “not able” to keep growing and hiring.
“The more sustainable way is to ensure that the economy continuously hosts, trains and collaborates with Emiratis,” Zaouali said.
It’s part of a broader trend, said Eman Alhussein, a nonresident fellow at 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 from government jobs, she said.
“Gulf countries want citizens to change their expectations, give back to the state and take longer-hour, possibly lower-income jobs,” Alhussein said.
In November, UAE Minister of Human Resources and Emiratization Abdulrahman Al Awar said that by 2022 more than 14,000 Emiratis had entered the labor market and an average of 100 would find a job every day.
The government also announced a salary support scheme that will provide up to AED7,000 (US$1,900) extra for Emiratis in the private sector if monthly wages are less than AED30,000.
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 AED25,000.
The UAE, a leading regional hub for multinational companies, was among the 10 richest countries in the world according to the United Nations in 2020.
In 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund, it had a GDP per capita of more than US$47,000, higher than Britain and France.
It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Middle East, but data on national unemployment among Emiratis is not publicly available.
In the UAE’s financial hub, Dubai, unemployment in the Emirates rose from 2.5% in 2012 to 4.2% in 2019, according to the Dubai Statistics Center.
Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati researcher at Oxford University, said “dissatisfaction” was brewing, particularly after laws limiting the share of foreign companies in companies to 49 percent were scrapped last year.
“In the past, Emiratis who didn’t want to enter the private sector had the option of waiting for a job in the public sector, starting their own business or becoming a 51 percent local partner in a company,” she said.
“The drying up of these multiple sources… has narrowed the options available.”
Debate on the issue garnered attention this month after an ad urging Emiratis to apply for a job as a “sandwich maker” at restaurant chain Subway sparked criticism on social media and a state investigation into the “controversial” post prompted.
“The lack of administrative, financial and technical jobs has given rise to the ‘sandwich maker’… Oh, what a dude!” Read a popular Twitter post.