Entrepreneurial Leave: Here's Why The UAE Should Consider Providing This Offering To Emiratis Employed In The Public Sector

By introducing the concept of entrepreneurial leave, it could thus spark the innovative spirit of young Emiratis who are yearning for a challenge.

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Since 2010, the UAE government has been making extensive efforts to boost the participation of UAE nationals in the private sector through the Emiratization program. This included a quota system in certain sectors (banking and insurance), disincentives for employing expatriates, and a host of focused initiatives such as the UAE Vision 2021, the UAE National Innovation Strategy, and the National Program for Advanced Skills.


Most of these are laudable initiatives, aimed at correcting the imbalance in the job sector. As most people know, expatriates in the UAE are currently the overwhelming majority in the working population (over 90%). Though Emiratis constitute 11.5% of the total population, they represent less than 10% of the active labor force. Studies reveal an alarming rise in unemployment among educated Emiratis. Around 10,000 nationals now enter the jobs market every year, according to government figures.

To counter the imbalance in the labour market, the UAE Government launched the Emiratization (Tawteen) campaign, which mandates the inclusion of Emiratis in the job sector, particularly in the private sector. The UAE encourages the public and private sectors to implement Emiratization policies at all levels through the establishment of a special department, quota, and incentives. The measures adopted by the UAE authorities are part of what is known as social engineering, which is another word for planned intervention by the state to rectify a certain imbalance; in this case, unemployment among Emiratis.

The UAE leadership aims to develop a competitive economy driven by competent and innovation-driven Emiratis. To achieve this goal, Emiratis need to get out of their comfort zones and the safety net of public sector jobs, and venture into launching small businesses, or take up challenging jobs in the private sector. But the key impediment here is the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the reluctance to work in the private sector among Emiratis.

As someone who has straddled the worlds of both the private sector and the government sector for two decades, I have managed to get a ringside view of both camps. I jumped jobs with ease, switching from self-driven companies (franchise industry, events, business consultancy, etc.) to cushy government jobs to diplomatic assignments. I guess my learnings qualify me to offer suggestions and solutions that can help accelerate the pace of Emiratization in the UAE.

My solution is novel and unusual. I recommend the introduction of "entrepreneurial leave" for employees of the public sector. This short-term leave (of 3 to 6 months duration) should be permitted for young employees to enable them to try their hand at starting a small business or launching a project. This window will allow Emiratis to explore their entrepreneurial side, while still being cushioned by the salary (or at least a percentage of it) from the government job, so that they are emboldened to become entrepreneurs. At the end of this period, the employee will decide whether they want to be an entrepreneur, or if they wish to return to their old job.

At present, government employees are entitled to different types of leaves, such as annual leave, sick leave, bereavement leave, maternity leave, Hajj leave, companion to patient leave, etc. My suggestion is that the government sector should add entrepreneurial leave to this list. The HR departments could work out the modalities and finer points in sync with each organization's structure. According to me, this measure could achieve a number of direct and indirect objectives.

Firstly, it will nurture the entrepreneurial spirit among Emiratis, and the competent ones could blossom into successful entrepreneurs. Secondly, it will reduce the overdependence of Emiratis on government sector jobs, and avoid a situation where there may not be enough jobs in the public sector. Thirdly, it will open up vacancies in the public sector, since at least some of those taking the entrepreneurial leave would say goodbye to cushy government jobs, as the returns could be huge and the satisfaction beyond expectations.

In my view, disruptive and out-of-the-box measures are needed to bring us out of the Emiratization stupor. After all, the steps taken so far have not yielded convincing or satisfactory results. Emiratis are still chasing public sector jobs and shunning private sector positions for obvious reasons. The carrot-and-stick measures as part of the Emiratization campaign are too are ineffective, because private sector players get disheartened by mandatory measures that ultimately prove counter-productive at the work front.

The ground reality is that there is a real need to trigger a nationalistic zeal among the Emiratis to become active participants in the era of expanded economic opportunities, where the sky is the limit. It is projected that the Emiratization policy would possibly achieve some level of success in the short term, but could be counterproductive in the long run. According to a 2016 government report, the achievement level of Emiratization in the private sector was 3.38%, and the share of Emirati in the workforce was 7.19%.

The aim of any modern government should be to build a body of entrepreneurs, and a workforce that will fuel the development of a modern, knowledge-based economy. In this context, the need to empower Emirati entrepreneurs can never be overemphasized. It is the need of the hour. The introduction of entrepreneurial leave could thus spark the innovative spirit of young Emiratis who are yearning for a challenge, but do not want to risk a loss of salary in the interim.

The economic ecosystem is also in for a major shake-up in the UAE, and this could heap bigger pressure on Emiratis who are over-dependent on public sector jobs, or content to function as dormant partners in private companies. The recent move by the UAE government to allow 100% ownership for foreign investors will bring in far-reaching changes in the business landscape of the UAE. This move is likely to reduce the scope for many Emiratis to earn income from partnerships with expatriates. The old practice of mandatory partnership was a special privilege given by the government to the local Emiratis. Under this situation, unemployed Emiratis may not have many options but to seek jobs in the private sector.

The writing is on the wall. The days of Emiratis earning a steady income by just being inactive partners in a business are over. We need a new breed of Emiratis entrepreneurs, men and women who are proactive and world smart. Investors will get increasingly choosy and demanding, if they want to team up with an Emirati partner. They will look for value for money. Having said that, I personally feel having an Emirati business partner has several advantages for foreign investors, vis-a-vis going solo under the 100% ownership model. There are quite a lot of unique offerings that Emiratis bring to the table. Firstly, they have strong contacts in the local market. Secondly, their understanding of the cultural ethos can go a long way in guiding the business direction. Thirdly, they have a strong family name, something they are proud of, and as such, they would hesitate to take any unethical steps to boost business.

The future indicates a disruptive job market, marked by new skillsets that will help UAE nationals to be active players on the economic front. Across the Gulf, efforts to bring locals into the private sector have not yielded desired results, and this has led to discontent and seething anger among some local citizens in some Gulf countries. This was brought to the fore in May 2021 when hundreds of job-seeking Omanis staged street demonstrations in several cities and towns of Oman.

These developments reflect the ineffectiveness of some of the policies pertaining of nationalization of jobs. In a globalized world, protectionism does not always work. Perhaps the solution lies in putting the locals in the ring, and let them taste the fire, so to say. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Inhabitants of Gulf countries should make efforts to take a global view as far as business is concerned. They need to adopt change, embrace innovation, move out of the comfort zone, and get hands-on.

To sum up, my suggestion of introducing entrepreneurial leave for Emiratis employed in the public sector could be one of the most effective ways of helping locals join the entrepreneurial bandwagon, take the public sector yoke off their shoulders, and join a global community of businesspeople, fired to succeed, and thus help the country achieve its vision of becoming one of the most prosperous and developed countries in the world.

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