A most hospitable Emirati

The Life: How the general manager of Cassells is heading moves to enlist countrymen into hospitality sector

Faisal Saeed al Romaithi, the vice chairman of the Cassells Group, adopts a hands-on approach to management. Pawan Singh / The National
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Faisal Saeed al Romaithi is a rarity within the Emirati business community.

During breaks from university, shortly after his family opened Cassells Hotel Apartments in Abu Dhabi in 2000, Mr al Romaithi could be found working at the reception desk, booking reservations and checking in guests, or scrutinising rooms as the supervisor of housekeepers.

Over the years he has earned a Bachelor's degree in management and marketing, and a Master's in human resources management, while also working in his family's expanding hotel business as a sales and marketing director and general manager.

"Last week I was bored and I told the receptionist I'm working with you," says Mr al Romaithi, the vice chairman of Cassells Group, which opened a third hotel last year in Dubai. "I like to sit and talk with the guests. I like to get their feedback."

Emiratis including Mr al Romaithi make up only 0.96 per cent of people working in the regional tourism industry, which encompasses hotels, travels agencies and tour-guide outfits.

While 10 per cent of his own staff are Emiratis, he says his target is to quadruple that amount and ultimately have a staff wholly made up of Emiratis.

Mr al Romaithi has been busy tapping into industry data and his business network while researching his PhD thesis, the topic of which is why there are not more Emiratis in this sector, and how to change this.

"I hire locals," he says. "It was challenging at the beginning, especially because the families don't want their daughters and sons to work in hospitality because it's taboo.

"This is changing. People are understanding that tourism is a major contributor to the UAE economy."

Others in the industry have also seen changes. Toufic Tamin, the vice president of sales and marketing for the Middle East at Moevenpick Hotels & Resorts, says its UAE properties have been hiring more nationals for the sales department.

Mr Tamin says locals are also showing interest in working at the front desk and in public relations.

"Perhaps more attention or training should be given to the nationals for the food and beverage department because that is the thing we haven't seen much development in," he says. "But it will come. It should come."

Over the next year, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) is working to more than double the proportion of Emiratis in the capital's tourism sector to 2 per cent.

Atef Abdulla al Bastaki, who heads the ADTA's nationalisation initiatives, also oversees its Ambassador Programme, where university students and workers nominated by organisations, including Etihad Airways and the Abu Dhabi Police, are taught about local sites and history to help to educate foreign visitors.

"I'm promoting Emiratis in the industry and introducing the industry to the Emiratis," Mr al Bastaki says. "Basically, I'm the middle man."

And as that middle man he has quite a gap to bridge. He says there are 400 vacancies for Emiratis in the regional hotel business.

But while there are 12,000 nationals actively seeking jobs, they often disregard hospitality because the working hours are significantly longer than other sectors and earn lower overall pay.

That is why Mr al Bastaki and the ADTA have been working closely with hoteliers, some of whom have suggested flexible working hours to get more Emiratis into areas such as finance, marketing, human resources and administration.

He is also leading a team of colleagues from the ADTA to research how much Emiratis earn in the government sector compared with the private sector, and specifically within the hotel industry.

At the same time, Mr al Bastaki is working with outside partners to have funding introduced to help fill the salary gap for nationals interested working in this sector but deterred by lower wages.

"It's just going to take some time," he says.