On an episode of the popular television show House of Cards, the American president, played by Kevin Spacey, announces an initiative to create 10 million jobs in America, where anyone who's unemployed and wants a job will get one. In a speech, he says: "Entitlements have crippled the country. Let me be clear, you are entitled to nothing; you build your future, it isn't handed to you".
When the question “Why would Emirati youth prefer to remain unemployed when so many private sector jobs are available?” was posed in a recent article, that speech came back to me. The article says there’s approximately 24 per cent unemployment among youth ages 20 to 24, yet Emiratis still account for less than 1 per cent of the private-sector workforce. I couldn’t help but feel there was a link between the speech in the show and the unemployment issue we are facing.
On a personal note, when I think of the lives my wife and I lead, her as an entrepreneur with a small business and myself as a freelancer, we’re constantly working, pitching and engaging different organisations, because if we didn’t, the bills wouldn’t get paid, our children couldn’t go to school and at some point we would have to move in with my dad. Waiting around to be given a job is a luxury we simply don’t have.
However, Emiratisation means I could probably walk into most offices of private companies and be able to find some form of work. So why are there large unemployment rates among youth when there are so many opportunities in the private sector?
From a cultural perspective, it’s hard for us to see beyond the brand of a private or international organisation. For example, if I worked as a marketing analyst for McDonald’s, among a lot of my peers, I would be seen as the guy who works for the place where they get their Big Macs. They wouldn’t see one of the world’s largest fast-food franchises that employs 2 million people, equivalent to a quarter of the UAE’s entire population, and in 2015 made revenues of approximately US$25 billion (Dh91.83 billion) globally.
Now take a company such as Mubadala, which made less than half of McDonald’s revenue in the same fiscal year and employs 39,000 people. Given the prestige that comes with working at Mubadala, that’s where Emiratis are lining up to work. People wouldn’t ask an Emirati employee what they did there or the specific value they created in the same way. Saying you worked at that organisation would be enough. This, I believe, signifies a sense of prestige when working in the government sector.
The second reason I believe Emiratis would rather wait for government employment than seek private-sector opportunities is the social safety we have in the UAE. When I returned from university, my father was pushing me to get out and look for work; there was no sense of urgency from my side. I was comfortable living in his home, getting fed and being handed money every day for going out and socialising. Even now when if, God forbid, it all goes wrong in our lives, my family and I would move back into his house. You don’t see any homeless Emiratis, or even the fear of homelessness.
My fear is that as the country slowly shifts towards a bottom-up approach to value creation within our economy, we will increasingly rely on the go-getters who want to work, and less on the people who sit around waiting to be given something.
Patriotism is a strong reason for Emiratis to join the government sector, but that’s not the only way to show it. As Emiratis, we need to understand that we can’t wait around to be handed something or feel entitled to a government job. There are plenty of jobs for people who want to work, but they might not be the jobs that make us the most comfortable. It’s important for us all to remember that it’s not where we work, but what we build and the value we create for our leaders, citizens and residents.
Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.