UAE Vision 2021 Goals: Entrepreneurship And Wellbeing In The UAE

UAE Vision 2021 Goals: Entrepreneurship And Wellbeing In The UAE
Image credit: Patryk Kosmider /

(This is part one in a two-part series.)

The UAE’s Vision 2021 plan sets ambitious goals for the nation. Among these goals are to increase entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship in the region, and to increase the nation’s rating on the World Happiness Report in terms of every resident’s well-being. But how does the UAE measure up in terms of citizen participation and happiness now?

Wellbeing in Santa Monica, California Provides Insight for Dubai

The Wellbeing Project, conducted in Santa Monica, California offers valuable insights for the UAE. Like Dubai, Santa Monica is an affluent beachfront city. Like Dubai, it hosts students and celebrities, local residents and vacationing tourists, multinational companies and global investors.

But as Fast Company’s Jessica Leber reports, The Wellbeing Project found that although Santa Monica residents had high voter rates, most people felt that they had little influence on decision-making. Residents of Santa Monica also feel disengaged from their communities, don’t feel as if they can rely on their neighbors and many are concerned about affordability and the ability of their children to live and thrive in the city. The young, those aged 18 to 34, reported feeling most dissatisfied with their lives. One in three were often stressed and one in five often lonely. Minority populations reported much lower wellbeing than others.

The Wellbeing Project defines wellbeing as life satisfaction as it is influenced by social connections, economic stability, personal safety, physical surroundings, fulfilling employment, civic engagement and health.  What does satisfaction really mean? Subjectively, satisfaction is related to autonomy, competence, relationships and ability to achieve one’s potential. Objectively, it is economic resilience, educational opportunities, environment and health that contribute to wellbeing.

Pride in one’s residence, connection to others and feeling as if one contributes to the development and policies of your home city and country are important components of wellbeing.

The Wellbeing Project consider five dimensions important to people’s life satisfaction:

  1. community or social capital: strong connections between inhabitants;
  2. place: the economic, environmental, physical and social characteristics of the area;
  3. learning: primary, secondary, tertiary and life-long learning greatly impact wellbeing;
  4. health: having tools and resources to manage health; and
  5. economic opportunity: opportunities for upward mobility.

Just as it occurs in Dubai, many Santa Monica residents lack strong social connections and a sense of neighborhood cohesion. A scarcity of strong local networks, civic engagement and shared community identity threaten everyone’s wellbeing.

Just like Dubai, Santa Monica is thought to be an affluent city, yet, income inequality and high housing costs present great obstacles to wellbeing. Over half of Santa Monica residents don’t believe their children will be able to live in the city and many are concerned about paying their rent or mortgage.

Employee Engagement and Entrepreneurship in the UAE

Entrepreneurial spirit is a mindset: not a startup percentage. It is not the number of businesses that are launched that matters so much as the number of people that consider starting a business a viable option. Entrepreneurial spirit applies to all UAE residents, not just those that start businesses. Entrepreneurial spirit contributes to learning and recognition of opportunity by the young and old, innovation and productivity among employees, and a sense of overall pride and contribution to one’s country. Engagement, at work and in the community, at school and in the local business environment, feeling like an important component of your country’s success- these things are directly related to wellbeing.

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A 2015 study, Job Satisfaction in the Middle East and North Africa, found that 61% of workers are actively seeking new jobs and only 10% of employees see themselves working for the same company next year.

While pay is an important factor in employee engagement, 62% of the employees surveyed cited lack of career growth opportunities as the main reason for moving on. Most employees do not think salaries are fair or consistent across different populations for the same positions and half do not think companies offer adequate professional training.

It’s easy to see why MENA employees don’t feel very committed to their employers: three out of four employees don’t think they have adequate job security, 40% don’t believe their managers have good people management skills, and 65% don’t feel that there is mutual respect within their teams.

Two-thirds of employees do not feel proud, motivated or enjoy going to work. 40% strongly disagree with company procedures but few feel as if their input matters.

Interestingly, this survey found that 70% of employees feel that it is important to contribute to the community. This is an important consideration because community contribution and connection are strong drivers of social cohesion, civic participation, intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship.

Drivers Of Engagement

The UAE is striving to increase the number of Emiratis working in the private sector as well as increasing overall entrepreneurship in the region. Financial drivers are often thought to be strong motivations for entrepreneurship but this is a different matter in the UAE. The UAE’s labor policies tend to make income a weak motivator.

The UAE’s distributive economy and Emiritization policies disconnect work and reward for most Emiratis and discourage entrepreneurship. The lure of almost-guaranteed positions in the public sector, with high incomes, multiple benefits, low working hours and other government subsidies for nationals, decrease ambition and initiative, risk-taking and educational drivers, work ethic and the goal of independence.

For expatriates, the lure of high income potential in the region is compromised by short-term visas and uncertain job security in terms of contributing to entrepreneurship or wellbeing measures. Sponsorship policies, limited local market access and status as temporary workers give expatriates little incentive to either share their knowledge with Emiratis or invest in building businesses in the UAE.

As World Economic Forum (WEF) authors of “Rethinking Arab Employment: A Systemic Approach for Resource-Endowed Economies” report: “protective governments, parents and teachers” in the UAE create a native population dependent upon government support and insulated from knowledge of the private sector or the role they might play within it.

As Zayed University Professor Martin Hvidt stresses in The State and the Knowledge Economy in the Gulf: Structural and Motivational Challenges, there is a distinct lack of a professional development track in the Gulf region. Professional development in the public sector is about management positions and very little professional development is offered in professional fields. As Hvidt points out, for engineers, programmers and technicians, gaining deeper knowledge in their field is disconnected from their promotions. It is the expats that pursue specialized knowledge and the nationals that seek to become managers for reasons of status and title more than actual contribution to the country’s economy.

(This is part one in a two-part series--the follow-up article will be published next week.)