Plan to boost Emirati families key as expat population surges

Dubai's blueprint for the next decade puts the family at the centre of society amid rapid development, experts say

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, unveiled plans to double the number of Emirati families in the emirate within a decade. Wam
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Dubai’s efforts to increase the number of Emirati families in the coming decade will contribute significantly to promoting social cohesion, a leading academic has said.

Strengthening families is particularly important given the rapid development that Dubai has undergone in recent years, Dr Elizabeth Monier of the University of Cambridge said.

Her comments come after the announcement this week that the city plans to double the number of Emirati families by 2033 as part of its Dh208 billion ($56.63 billion) Dubai Social Agenda 33 initiative.

Investments in healthcare, education, housing, arts and culture, citizen support and social institutions are part of the strategy, which runs until 2033.

"It is important to note that the emphasis is on increasing the number of families, not just on the population," Dr Monier, an assistant professor in modern Arabic studies, told The National.

"The family is the basic unit of society upon which the cohesion of the state as a whole rests. By prioritising the family unit, there is a clear emphasis on cohesion.

"This is crucial in Dubai to avoid dislocation that can emerge in a context of rapid development. By supporting basic social structures this can guard against fragmentation oralienation while cementing social relations and heritage into the backbone of development."

Growing in numbers

The population of the UAE is close to 10 million people, however the number of Emiratis is only 1 million, according to data from the World Bank.

That Emiratis are outnumbered by expatriates in the emirate, a situation also seen in other parts of the Gulf region, is another reason why the new approach is important, Dr Monier said.

"Supporting cohesion among [the Emirati population] is essential to avoid alienation and to maintain solidarity and a united vision. By investing in families Dubai is investing in human capital," she added.

The initiative will see government funding for healthcare jump to Dh120 billion between 2023 and 2033, compared to Dh66 billion during the previous decade.

Community development funding is increasing to Dh88 billion for the coming decade, up from Dh26 billion during the previous 10 years.

This covers areas including arts and culture, education, citizen support, sports and housing, the last of which receives Dh14.5 billion to develop integrated residential compounds for Emiratis.

Among the aims of Dubai Social Agenda 33 is making the emirate one of the top three cities in the world in standard of living and in the top 10 for life expectancy and quality of education.

Emiratis in the private sector

Another aim is to triple the number of Emiratis working in the private sector, an aspiration that follows many years of efforts to promote Emiratisation.

Parallel programmes in other Gulf states encourage the private sector to take on more citizens of those nations.

Prof Martin Beck, of the Phillips University of Marburg in Germany, said the UAE's efforts would need to be accompanied by steps to limit the number of Emiratis employed by the public sector.

Prof Beck said that the authorities in the Gulf nations recognised the need to limit expenditure on welfare programmes for their own citizens.

"There could be a political-economic rationale [behind the new policy] … if they succeed in redirecting their local population to the private sector," he said.

Global crises could be playing a part

Dr Frederic Schneider, an economist and former lecturer at the University of Birmingham's Dubai campus, said a trend for deglobalisation could be behind efforts to emiratise the workforce in Dubai.

This was partly fuelled by global supply chains being left vulnerable by international crises, along with access to expatriate labour becoming more volatile.

"In that sense, the Emiratisation efforts parallel the industrial policy efforts to 'insource' supply lines and strengthen domestic supply," he said.

The drive may also be aimed at halting a decline in birth rates among Emiratis, Dr Schneider said, with official figures indicating a significant fall in the past decade.

Another aim of Dubai Social Agenda 33 may be to reduce the number of people who remain single by introducing family-friendly measures.

However, he suggested achieving this may be difficult because of the increasing economic independence of women.

"Another channel to increase the number of Emirati families in Dubai is to recruit more Emiratis from outside Dubai," Dr Schneider said.

"We already see citizens of the Northern Emirates seeking employment in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Many of those prefer to continue residing in their hometowns and commuting to work for various reasons, [including the] cost of living and preferring closeness to family."

Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in the US and author of The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics and Policy-Making, said increasing the Emirati population "may be difficult to align with existing policy priorities to increase the proportion of women in the workforce".

"If the initiative is to succeed it will have to be wrapped within a broader package of support and targeted assistance to Emirati households to enable them to juggle the burdens of work-life balance," he said.

The new initiative may have been set up, Dr Ulrichsen said, as a reaction to social pressures and with the aim of "setting Dubai up for a new phase of long-term and more sustainable growth and development."

Sheikh Mohammed said that the Dubai Social Agenda 33 would be overseen by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed, First Deputy Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed, Second Deputy Ruler of Dubai, other sheikhs and senior officials.

"By putting his sons at the forefront of this initiative, Sheikh Mohammed may also be preparing Dubai for the eventual transition to a new generation of leadership," Dr Ulrichsen said.

Updated: January 08, 2024, 1:11 PM