Emiratization & the Middle East Migration Debate

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/21/2011 09:36:00 AM
Migration has obviously been a hot topic as of late in many Middle East energy exporters that have large migrant worker populations. While the stereotypical migrant performs '3-D' dirty, dangerous, or difficult work, the reality is more complex. Expatriates cannot readily be lumped into one category, performing work requiring varying levels of skill and come from not just Asia but also Europe and further afield.

However, a particularly urgent concern has been a tendency to look over domestic labour in favour of foreign labour. Out of habit, the assumption is that the locals would rather sit back and relax while others did what needed to be done. If you read more recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) literature, though, there has been a move to providing more indigenous work opportunities. Given high birth rates in many GCC countries, providing livelihoods--admittedly not high on the priority list in the past--has moved up. With increasingly militant youth asking for grater political freedoms in the absence of work opportunities, programmes to train and employ Middle Easterners are all the rage. At the end of the day, keeping the leadership status quo intact is a priority.

The debate is interesting in that, in the UAE for example, there is no real question about migrant workers still coming to the desert in appreciable numbers for the near future. Emiratis will remain a minority in their own land for a long time. Rather, the challenge to the Emiratis is one of providing gainful local employment opportunities alongside more traditional work patterns. Khalid Al Ameri writes that both Emiratization programmes are mutually constitutive with current trends in expatriate employment:
Emiratisation has always been a hot topic for Emiratis and expatriates both, sometimes for different reasons. In the recent FNC [Federal National Council] campaign, it was clear that public opinion was very concerned with topics related to the population imbalance, in which Emiratis make up less than 20 per cent of the populace, and how Emiratisation can play a role in realigning the demographics. The issue has a heightened sense of urgency, and rightfully so.

The relatively slow progress of Emiratisation efforts, taken with the 13 per cent unemployment rate of nationals at the beginning of 2011, is a serious concern for national development. Any country's stability depends on its citizen labour force, just from a perspective of continuity. When the financial crisis hit in 2008-9, how many people were afraid that it would be Emiratis who left the country to seek jobs abroad?

There are several initiatives that are meant to boost Emiratis' participation in the public and private sectors: the mandate from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to the Executive Council to create 6,000 jobs in government departments, for instance; and the Khalifa Fund for Emiratisation Empowerment, which set aside Dh440 million to train Emiratis and to subsidise salaries. The goal now for business executives on the ground is to implement these programmes.
The answer may just be a hybrid in which foreign hired hands help in devising local employment opportunities:
That raises a question: who are we depending on to implement effective and sustainable Emiratisation policies? This is not just a matter of filling quotas, but of bringing Emiratis into the workplace, training them to the highest standards and providing an environment where they can grow and flourish.

The answer, I hope, is pretty obvious. With the lack of Emiratis in the private sector, we depend on expatriates to help implement the various Emiratisation strategies on the ground. The numbers speak for themselves: Emiratis make up about 5 per cent of the private sector. In some critical fields, such as health care, only 6 per cent of the workforce (and 1 per cent of physicians) is Emirati.

The training of young Emirati professionals by expatriate managers and staff is an interesting - and controversial - situation. One common argument that I have heard is that there is a lack of knowledge transfer from experienced expatriates to Emiratis. That may be the case, but it raises another interesting point. I have never seen qualified expatriates lose their jobs because they have trained young Emiratis to fill their jobs. If anything, experienced trainers are kept as an asset to develop other young nationals.

There is another issue that pertains to how expatriate professionals are treated by their own organisations. We have to remember that expatriate workers have their own career development goals, which can have a positive knock-on effect for their Emirati colleagues...How sustainable is a model where expatriates help to develop Emirati professional talent without development for their own careers? Some might argue that expatriates should stay in their own countries if they want to benefit from career-development programmes. But that is shortsighted. Expatriates' career ambitions and personal development targets strengthen their role in complementing the Emirati workforce...

With national leaders setting mandates for the Emirati workforce, expatriates have to be part of the solution. It starts with organisations making them feel that way. That could kick-start an effective Emiratisation movement.
It's interesting to see how ostensibly 'people-less' parts of the world handle such pressures.