A lesson in Emirati hospitality

A vocational programme teaches high school students how to properly set a table and introduce the UAE to visitors as tour guides.

A hospitality training workshop at the Armed Forces Officers Club &  Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
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ABU DHABI // Hamdan al Mazrouei struggled to clutch an ice cube between a fork and spoon as he prepared the table for lunch. When he was finished wrangling the slippery cubes, he carefully arranged the cutlery, his giggling colleagues looking on. But he did it wrong. The small knife should have been on the outside.

Hamdan, 16, is one of about 30 Emiratis in a hospitality training programme that introduces them to careers in the hospitality and tourism sector, where they might be waiters or tour guides. That sector has one of the lowest levels of Emiratisation - officials last year said that Emiratis make up less than one per cent of its workforce .

"In all the hotels you might find just one or two [Emiratis] working, but not a whole lot. So we want to open up the hotels to bring them in," said John Noronha, the training manager at the Armed Officers Club and Hotel, which is organising the programme. "The salaries don't really help," said Abdullah Saif, 18, an accounting student at Zayed University who is participating in the programme, referring to the traditionally low pay scales in the sector, especially for entry-level positions.

All of the students are between 14 and 16 years old, and the programme is designed to catch them before they have established college or career choices. And organisers say a significant Emirati presence is needed to sustain the industry. "When people come from abroad, who is teaching them? Foreigners. It would be good if locals can tell them about it because they know the country," said Saeed al Dhaheri, a 17-year-old high school student who is taking part in the training.

The jobs are out there, he said, citing the hotels at Yas Island as proof. "It needs the sons of the country. They are more knowledgeable about the culture of the country, they can welcome them and teach others about their country," said Mohammed al Neaimi, director of the Government's Tawteen programme. But hurdles exist. Negative perceptions of the hospitality industry colour many individuals' attitudes towards the sector, experts say. Students, instructors and officials also say that the low wages and long hours act as a disincentive to Emirati youth. In addition, some parents feel the field is inappropriate for their daughters.

"There is a negative impression or thinking about hospitality, that it's a service industry and you have to serve people," Mr Noronha said. That makes it a challenge to attract Emiratis, even though they enjoy a higher salary bracket and better benefits and incentives. "We are used to luxury in our country," said Abeer Musabbah, 17, a high school student. "We are used to the highest salaries and positions. They also think, 'How can a girl stand at the reception and talk to men?'" Abeer, who said her Egyptian mother played a role in persuading her Emirati father to let her join the programme, quickly developed an affinity for the field and asked to be transferred to the guest-relations programme.

She proudly recalls her self-restraint when an angry customer approached her, rudely complaining before she calmed him down and told him the hotel would take care of his grievance. Still, she plans to pursue another primary major in college. Although she would love to work in hospitality, she is unsure if it offers her sufficient career progression. The students, meanwhile, revel in their newest assignments: cheesecakes they have made, which some plan to take home to impress their mothers, and bowls of tabouleh.

"The makings of my hand, by my eyes," one student sang, recalling the words of an Egyptian tune celebrating food made with one's own hands. Others whip out their BlackBerrys and cameras to film their colleagues as they make tabouleh, threatening them with embarrassing YouTube videos. This is the third time the officer's club has held the course, which includes sessions on culinary arts, etiquette, hospitality training, hospitality career planning, introductions to UAE cultural attractions like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and a glimpse into international hotel operations at the Emirates Palace, Qasr al Sarab, Atlantis Hotel and Yas Marina.

Students are briefed on Abu Dhabi's development plans and meet other youth studying hospitality in the UAE. The programme runs between July 11 and August 5. Mr Noronha said three students had expressed interest in careers in the field beyond training. "Out of 30, if we have three people working that's good enough," he said. The students laughed about properly using knives and forks to eat, joking about more relaxed eating habits at home. Earlier, they had reached a compromise to use cutlery the American way rather than in the continental fashion. That let them avoid holding a fork in their left hands, which is frowned upon by some Muslims.

But beyond the playfulness, some recognised they had a role to play as faces of the country. "Bringing tourists in and showing them around is something to be proud of," said Mr Saif, who is considering being a tour guide. "You tell them about your country. It's a good field and you can be proud of your country." @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae