Enterprising Emiratis are grasping a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help lead the UAE into the future with the support of some of the country's brightest minds.
The National Experts Programme was launched by President Sheikh Mohamed, in 2019 when he was Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to equip talented citizens with the knowledge and skills to shape the nation's development on the international stage for years to come.
The eight-month mentorship scheme pairs high achievers with industry leaders, chief executives and government ministers who share their experiences and expertise to provide a platform for success.
Applicants must have 10 years' experience, including five in their sector, and should have contributed to important national projects.
Applications for the third intake of the initiative, which is focused on economic growth, social development, and sustainability and infrastructure, are now being accepted through the NEP website.
“The National Experts Programme provides a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for aspiring Emiratis to play a central role in shaping a better future for citizens and residents,” said Ahmed Talib Al Shamsi, director of the NEP.
“We continue to focus on developing our leaders of tomorrow while also ensuring those leaders have deep expertise and specialisation in the sectors that are the foundation of our future economy.”
To date, 46 Emiratis have graduated from the programme and seven of their projects are being implemented.
The National spoke to graduates from the second class of the programme, who are already a driving force behind the Emirates' progress in everything from the safe use of nuclear energy to the global space race.
The woman leading nuclear safety
Meera Al Mheiri is a woman with great responsibility as the first Emirati nuclear safety inspector at the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
It is a role crucial to the nation as the UAE oversees the rapid development of its Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant, which is expected to produce 85 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s clean electricity by 2025 and will be key to efforts to cut carbon emissions under the net zero strategy.
Ms Al Mheiri, 29, obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical and nuclear engineering from Khalifa University and a master's degree in international affairs from King’s College London, specialising in surveillance and espionage.
She is on several advisory boards and acts as the UAE's youth ambassador in Germany.
Despite this list of achievements, she was aware she still needed help on her learning journey.
In the fellowship programme, she explored the policymaking process of the UAE under the guidance of the country's secretary general, Maryam Al Hammadi.
“I have been leading many strategic projects in terms of positioning the UAE in the nuclear field and providing a regulatory framework that aligns with the UAE’s peaceful nuclear energy policy and this is where you can see how important having a strong policy is but there was still so much that I learnt from the fellowship. It was an incredible journey that changed my life,” she said.
Ms Al Mheiri designed a policymaking framework that identified gaps in working systems and offered solutions.
“I think it is important for policymakers to know what a good policy is,” said Ms Al Mheiri, who was the youngest fellow to be selected.
“They need to apply the process in their field and not just sit in their offices. They need to go to the field and see in reality how their policies are implemented and what good it brings to the people ― that is the end goal ― policies that are good for the people and the country.
“The fellowship has helped me create this model and I currently am advising policymakers ― helping create and amend current and future systems that will serve the nation and the people.”
Championing culture from the ground up
Maisa Al Qassimi, 42, has been at the heart of Abu Dhabi's cultural development in recent years.
As acting project director for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, she is a significant part of an eagerly anticipated development.
The world-renowned museum will be a jewel on Saadiyat Island, joining Louvre Abu Dhabi, when it opens its doors in 2025.
She was nominated for the programme and is grateful for a phone call that ushered in a new chapter in her life.
“I am not sure who nominated me. I just received a call,” she said.
“I was intimidated at first but this turned out to be one of the most influential things in my life,” she said.
Her mentor was Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi, who helped to broaden her horizons and see the bigger picture of how the UAE turns plans into reality.
“I don’t work on a federal level so this opened up to me what the UAE was doing. Being in a room with all the ministers and leaders was life changing,” she said.
“After the programme, I started to look at everything as a wider project and not in silos but in relation to the whole UAE.”
Her work in the programme involved setting museum policies at federal level, with a focus on helping smaller establishments to thrive.
“These museums impact tourism, the cultural and creative industry among other things. I do feel that the UAE can do a lot to support smaller institutions and museums,” she said.
One part of the programme involved fellows visiting different areas of the UAE to develop tailored strategies for its development.
“We all had different mindsets and backgrounds so when we came together it was truly a powerhouse ― being on one table, speaking [about] how we can impact this area or town was extraordinary,” she said.
“Looking at something at a strategic level and contributing to the growth of your own country is a chance that not many countries provide. To say that I was able to shape something for the UAE is historic,” she said.
A launchpad for ambitions in space
Fatima Al Shamsi's stellar career has been propelled to new heights by the NEP.
The head of space policy and legislation at the UAE Space Agency was mentored by Omran Sharaf, project director of the UAE's Mars mission who was recently chosen to lead the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space for the next two years.
The 30-year-old's mission under the programme was to develop the national space competitiveness strategy for the next 50 years.
“I worked with Mr Sharaf and … I shadow him nationally and internationally,” she said.
“By doing this programme, you will be working on nationwide issues with the full support of the government. You will be gaining added knowledge and expertise, technically and practically.
“You shouldn’t even hesitate if you get a chance to be part of the fellowship.”
A blueprint for clean energy strategy
Ali Al Shimmari, 33, who is an international assets manager at the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, says he has become a “better version of myself”.
He relished the chance to be mentored by Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology.
“This programme was a golden opportunity. It is a transformational experience that was a game changer. It helped me to develop a better version of myself.”
He worked on developing an integrated hydrogen strategy for the UAE.
Last year, Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister for Climate Change and Environment, said the country was at the “crest of the wave” of hydrogen’s increasing importance.
She announced the launch of a UAE Hydrogen Leadership road map which she said would play a key role in the country’s low-carbon transition.
“It changes your mindset from a competitive one to a collaborative one,” Mr Al Shimmari said.
“I advise everyone to be part of this programme because first they will witness exponential growth in their professional network and, secondly, it will put them on the right track in terms of their sector and give them the tools to be leaders. Last but not least, it brings them closer to the decision makers.”
Helping businesses grow
Sultan Al Junaibi, 30, is a senior private equity associate at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.
He immediately recognised the benefits of the NEP, which would afford him the chance to bolster his own skills while helping others.
“I have been working for years with institutions globally and I wanted to give back what I learnt to the UAE and improve my leadership skills,” he said.
He said the scheme allowed him to develop a "leadership mindset – agile and analytical – which enables me to think in different ways and see things from different angles”.
His mentor was minister of state, Ahmed Al Sayegh.
Mr Al Junaibi set up a platform for SME (small-to-medium enterprise) owners to manage, register and fund businesses online.
He said such businesses have a major role to play in the economy.
“Around 45 percent of our non-oil GDP comes from SMEs," he said.
"They are big contributors to our economy and help us in increasing diversity of sources of income.”
Sharing a passion for education
Kalthoom AlBlooshi has dedicated her professional life to education and is a firm believer in the adage you should never stop learning.
Ms AlBlooshi, 40, recently joined Apple Middle East as their education lead, having previously worked in senior roles for the major schools group Gems and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai's private education regulator.
She joined the programme to further develop her own abilities.
“This was a very different type of leadership programme,” she said.
“For the first time ever it is dedicated to my expertise. It is not dedicated to developing my leadership skills only, but created a platform to understand my sector better and engage with the expertise from my sector as well.
“It has many specialties that are not in any other programme while at the same time giving you the opportunity to network with other fellow Emiratis who are experts in their own field. That the programme focuses on your expertise, is a first,” she said.
She understands how important a good education can be in allowing people to make meaningful contributions to society.
“The concept of schooling started to ensure people are enabled to play an active role in the economy and society, which provided people the opportunities to explore multiple paths,” she said.
“Both of my parents were not educated and a good education is what made me the person I am today and because the country is committed to investing in me as well as myself putting the time and effort, I continue to develop and grow.
“That's why I am committed to ensure more and more of the young generation see the value of education and to inspire them to continue to learn.
She was mentored by Jameela Al Muhairi, Minister of State for Public Education, and her major project was based on improving education outcomes by tracking progress more closely.
“One of the things I love about this programme is that it develops the capacity of the expertise level for the participants, which is something that does not exist in any other programmes,” she said.