The UAE is one of only two countries in the world, the other being Qatar, where more than 60 per cent of nationals need to be leaders if Emiratis are to run the country. Before dismissing this statement as impossible, let’s do some quick maths to demonstrate why leadership development for the Emiratis should be a strategic country goal for the UAE.
Executives and strategic leaders across all sectors make up about 8 per cent of any country’s workforce. The UAE has a potential workforce (those between 15 and 64) of approximately 8 million people, which means that about 640,000 members of the workforce will be needed to fill executive and strategic leadership posts. There are only about one million Emiratis in the UAE. If all of the UAE’s leaders were Emirati, then about 64 per cent of all Emiratis will be needed to fill these crucial roles.
The number mentioned above is intended to highlight the great need for national leadership skills in the UAE rather than to suggest a specific leadership quota. This is especially true given that not all Emiratis will aspire to leadership positions – and that is absolutely fine. It is important to remember that leadership is a challenging, stressful and demanding job; some love to lead, while others prefer other responsibilities.
At the same time, many expatriates serve in leadership roles in the UAE and consequently have greatly contributed to the country’s strong growth and development. In fact, as early as the 1800s, Iranian and Indian merchants played a prominent role in trading hubs such as Dubai. Today, the UAE continues to attract top expatriate talent from around the globe, and it would be foolish not to use these human resources for the benefit of the country. Business leadership within the country need not be an entirely homogenous entity – diversity has advantages.
Yet it is clear that Emiratis want to remain in control of their country and continue to shape its future development. For this to happen, the UAE needs to ensure that it builds a sustainable well of national talent, skills and leaders. Building this leadership capability is both a major challenge and a major opportunity. It is a challenge because a large percentage of leadership roles will have to be filled by a small Emirati minority. However, this leadership development also represents an opportunity for the UAE to lead the world in leadership, potentially redefining the paradigm of how and why citizens become leaders.
Three of the UAE’s pre-existing strengths can serve as a major advantage in accelerating leadership development. First, Emiratis have strong leadership role models represented in their political leadership, clearly exemplified by the UAE President Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai – in addition to other prominent members of Emirati royal families. Universally respected and much admired, these political leaders reflect key leadership traits that can be practised by Emirati citizens operating in the business world.
Second, young Emiratis are eager to help the country, according to an Oxford Strategic Consulting survey of Emirati students featured in Oxford’s Maximising Emirati Talent report. To connect this key motivator with leadership development, government figures could stress that leadership is a strategic country goal. Reinforcing such a link may encourage more Emiratis to pursue demanding leadership roles for the benefit of the country.
Third, Oxford has identified that a distinctive Emirati leadership style does exist and possesses particular advantages for leadership development because of its focus on loyalty and relationships. This should be further analysed and taught to the next generation of Emirati leaders.
Emirati leaders are already practicing this style, but until now few observers have been interested in a closer examination of how Emiratis actually lead.
The UAE can transform a national minority into a leadership majority. While there will always be an important role for expatriates to play in the country, such a transformation will ensure that Emiratis continue to shape the future of their country.
Robert Mogielnicki is a senior analyst with Oxford Strategic Consulting, which specialises in building human capital across the GCC and Europe