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Study: Emirati anger at high unemployment rates has reached its peak

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A study published by the Gulf International Forum highlighted widespread anger in the UAE over high unemployment rates and low-paid jobs had reached its peak amid the government’s failure to advance Emiratisation programmes.

The study indicated a widespread wave of anger in the Emirates that began in early December due to the government’s continued inefficiency in promoting local employment and nationalizing jobs.

The Emiratisation plan aims to fill the jobs currently occupied by foreign workers with Emirati citizens. This time the dispute was prompted by a job that required Emirati nationals to apply for jobs making sandwiches at an American fast food chain, a position many Emiratis felt fell short of education, qualifications or social status.

The announcement, which was subsequently withdrawn, also came on the heels of a warning issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation to private sector companies, which required them to achieve a 2% Emiratisation target before January 1, 2023.

This quota applies to companies with at least 50 employees and only applies to highly skilled jobs.

Emirati anger over high unemployment and low-paying jobs is now at its peak. A young Emirati resident in Sharjah tweeted that there are fewer than 17,000 unemployed Emirati citizens in Sharjah alone.

Mira Al-Hussein, an Emirati academic and non-resident fellow at the Gulf International Forum warned that the coming Arab Spring could lead to greater reliance on government welfare programs among many Gulf nationals, hindering their professional development.

Localization initiatives for the GCC countries have long been unravelling. Skewed labour markets, significant demographic imbalances, and open, employer-driven immigration policies have rendered domestic employment programs ineffective.

However, it is challenging to imagine a situation, especially for a smaller country like the UAE, where a surplus of national graduates struggle to find employment in the public and private sectors.

In 2014 Gulf researcher Steffen Hertog analyzed the impact of nationalization policies across the Gulf over two decades.

Hertog hypothesized that loopholes in labour laws and low wages for foreign workers remain the main factors hindering the participation of GCC nationals in the private sector.

Hertog also believes that Gulf countries with significant oil wealth and fewer citizens, such as the United Arab Emirates, will face fewer challenges integrating their citizens into the labour market.

Twitter remains an essential public arena for Emiratis and foreign workers to discuss pressing social issues.

Due to widespread self-censorship by netizens, having a meaningful and constructive political discussion is difficult.

However, suppose there is one thing that has become clear from several generations of Emiratisation initiatives in the UAE. In that case, policies that continue to enhance the exclusivity of nationals in the labour market (and thus enshrine their caste status for themselves) will present obstacles to their employment in the long term.

Policymakers should also be aware that Emiratis make up nearly 10% of the population in the UAE. This means a highly fragmented labour market and a highly economically fragmented society.

Therefore, being a national alone does not necessarily give Emiratis a competitive edge over other skilled migrant workers in terms of local business savvy and social skills. Perhaps finding ways to tighten the open immigration system would be a better way forward.

The visa is not a wise move in a climate already defined by high unemployment among citizens and dissatisfaction with nationalization plans.

Although market pressures lie at the heart of the Emiratisation dilemma in the UAE, achieving a long-term solution remains a purely political project.

Over the past decade, the unemployment crisis has been exacerbated by structural changes in the UAE economy, including a general shift away from oil and the near-complete abolition of the sponsorship system, a crucial source of rentier income for Emiratis.

With the social contract undergoing rapid changes year after year, the next logical step would be to clarify some basic policy compromises and transparency in policymaking.

The creation of a generous welfare state fueled by oil wealth was not achieved without the sacrifices of ordinary Emiratis. On the contrary, it eroded their cultural identity and made them a minority in their own country.

The Emiratis have now reached a similar crossroads, where they are being asked to make some concessions for the good of the nation. But this time, they couldn’t bear to be passive observers.