Help Wanted, But Not Found: Emiratization in the UAE

What started as a job advertisement for a sandwich maker in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) quickly landed one firm in hot water last December. The UAE is pushing for the “Emiratization” of the country’s workforce, but for some on social media, encouraging Emirati citizens to work as sandwich makers was a step too far. Users on Twitter blasted the job posting, prompting the public prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation. 

The public outcry came as Emirati businesses struggled to meet new Emiratization targets amid an intensifying effort to encourage more Emiratis to enter the private sector, which has lagged behind the public sector. In 2021, the Emirati government allocated $6.5 billion for initiatives to boost Emirati nationals’ competitiveness in the private sector. Companies got incentives for employing nationals, a career portal launched specifically for Emiratis, and Emiratis  were entitled to career coaching and subsidized vocational training. 

But Emiratis overwhelmingly view government jobs as more desirable than the private sector. They see private sector jobs carrying social stigma, lower salaries, fewer benefits, and less attractive working conditions. In 2021, public sector employees in Abu Dhabi could earn as much as 40 percent more than in equivalent private-sector jobs. The government grants most Emiratis  in the private sector 7,000 dirham (nearly $2,000) a month to help close the wage gap. 

As it seeks to fill 10 percent of private sector roles with nationals by 2026, the UAE faces many of the same structural challenges faced by other Gulf states. But the challenge in the UAE seems the starkest.  In Saudi Arabia for example, Saudis make up around 23 percent of the private sector labor force, and Saudis have not shied away from work at all levels of the private sector. In 2021, Saudi Arabia limited all rideshare driving to Saudi nationals, who had already been dominating the sector for several years. Saudis also work in coffee shops and other types of service jobs. 

Recently, Emirati media has highlighted a new crop of Emiratis working as rideshare drivers, with drivers boasting of the work as a “national service.” Just don’t expect to see any Emirati sandwich makers anytime soon. 

Caleb Harper

Caleb Harper

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program