Sunday, 24 May 2009

A little local difficulty on the jobs front

The past few years have witnessed a surge in the debate on Emiratisation, the process of placing Emirati nationals in jobs in the private and public sector mostly to the distress of many in the expatriate community and corporations. But one aspect of the process has escaped the general discussion: does Emiratisation mean that only citizens from a specific emirate are allocated to jobs in their emirate of origin?

Sadly, this is the case with some emirates in the federation (and only officials who practise such a policy will be offended by that assertion). The notion that the advancement of the career of an Emirati employee is limited to just one part of the seven emirates in the federation is uncomfortable to say the least. Unless the playing field is level, based on merit and indiscriminate, this union will not be taking full advantage of the local talents available.

To put it bluntly, some northern emirates hire only nationals from their own emirates for senior posts in local government departments and in companies that are wholly or partly owned by the local government. In instances where an Emirati professional is headhunted by a local government in the northern emirates for a senior position it is always the case that he or she actually hails from that very same Northern Emirate.

Conversely, instances abound of citizens from the northern emirates who have been empowered in the Southern Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The ascent of our fellow Emiratis from the northern emirates to senior posts in the government, semi-government and private institutions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is a source of pride to all nationals. Sadly, this formula seems to work in only one direction most of the time, since we seldom see Abu Dhabian and Dubaian locals employed in top positions in the northern emirates.

Of the seven emirates that make up this economic powerhouse of a federation only two have broken the psychological divide of hiring nationals who originate from other emirates to senior posts. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have no doubt been enriched by placing Emiratis who hail from the northern emirates at commanding positions within their own hierarchy on a merit-based system.

But as I comb the positions that are filled in the northern emirates and the eastern coast towns the names seem very familiar, very common and ultimately very local.

There is an unspoken discrimination being practised by some northern emirates against nationals from other emirates. This is not the vision that the late Sheikh Zayed laid down when he established this country and paid for its federal institutions.

But what is the reason behind such discrimination, one may ask? The truth is that the size of the economies in the northern emirates means that there are precious few jobs available in the first place. The second reason is that local officials see it as a way to win local popular support by distributing jobs within their own constituencies. The third reason is the short-term vision of a policy that is clearly in violation of the UAE constitution.

Are we in need of affirmative action to undo this damage? The federal government in the capital could privately point this matter out to local officials in the northern emirates and inform them that future allocations of federal funding will be assessed on progress in this matter. It is unfathomable that almost 40 years after the founding of this country one struggles to find positions in certain emirates filled with citizens other than from that emirate.

It is also not the case that the northern emirates hire only native citizens. In fact, there are plenty of non-Emiratis filling senior positions in the northern emirates. These employees are usually called “advisers”, or are heads of organisations and institutions. The only thing they have in common is that they don’t come from other emirates. This reminds me of a Gulf Arab saying from Bahrain: “The Athari Springs replenish the far but neglect the near.” It is also important to point out that Emiratis from various Emirates employed by federal government institutions should not be included in any calculation, since they are appointed by Abu Dhabi and the Prime Minister’s office.

I recommend the following practical steps: first, a private denial by the northern emirates of what they will probably call my “baseless allegations”, and the citing of the one or two examples that the northern emirates may or may not have of intra-Emirati employment. Second, officials at the northern emirates must discreetly switch from a tribal-based system of employment to a merit-based system to catch up with Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Only then will the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed, a true federal state with all its implications, become a reality.

This article was first published in The National on Sunday, May 24th 2009.

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