t is 40 years since the birth of the UAE, and photos taken in the 1970s – which show a sandscape peppered with a few small buildings – are often used to provide a telling contrast with the enviable skylines and world-class infrastructure of the modern day.

But such rapid growth has not been without its challenges, particularly around human capital. The UAE wants to fuel business and economic growth not only by attracting the right sort of talent, but developing a knowledge economy that acknowledges the challenges of a rapidly changing macroeconomic environment.

The Emiratisation programmes – which, broadly, seek to integrate Emiratis more widely into the private sector workforce – are integral. But the government needs to become as innovative and as modern in its people practices as elements of the private sector, and in recent years has been emphasising the importance of HR and seeking to raise the level of HR practice across the board. 

The seven-year-old Federal Authority for Government Human Resources (FAHR), tasked with enhancing HR practices and government sector innovation for the benefit of 80,000-plus employees, is at the heart of this change. People Management caught up with its director general, His Excellency Dr Abdul Rahman A. AL Awar, to gather his insights on HR change, and the wider workforce issues the entire region is grappling with.

In what areas do you feel the local Emirati workforce has particular strengths to offer the UAE economy – in terms of cultural traits and skillsets – and which are the areas in need of further development?

The UAE has developed its human capital by investing significantly in its education system. We believe that our Emiratis are a very important success factor of the UAE, and they will continue to be the focus of our development plans and strategies.

The UAE is one of the most open and cosmopolitan countries in the world, with more nationalities and languages spoken then the UN. Emiratis are very welcoming and accustomed to working in this kind of environment, which is one of their strengths.

The skillsets Emiratis have developed are a result of the melting pot of all those cultures, as we’ve been exposed to many skills from across the world. Emiratis have learned and evolved though this merging of cultures, enabling them to compete in many market sectors – and I believe we have presented a successful model to the region in relation to our skills and competitive economy.

There is always room for improvement. We live in a very dynamic world and need to constantly adapt to change. We always benchmark ourselves globally and set targets to be ranked among the top countries. The UAE government works to identify and bridge any gaps.

There still remains a challenge in integrating more UAE nationals into the private sector. What are the primary reasons for this, and what measures is the government taking to change it?

The UAE has been an incredibly fast-growing economy – much faster than you’ll see in many other countries – and it has been able to create literally hundreds of thousands of jobs every year. There is always going to be room to enhance the integration of the UAE nationals in the sense that certain sectors are growing very fast and you have to catch up with them, while the education system has to keep up with what’s happening in the economic sectors. Another challenge is the geographical distribution of the workforce, meaning they might sometimes need to relocate to another Emirate in order to participate in the economic cycle.

I believe there is now a trend towards more integration into the private sector through entrepreneurship and small-to-medium-sized businesses. A decade or more ago, the government introduced programmes to support this, and it’s a strategy that will continue evolving. Likewise, there are incentives to help Emiratis integrate into certain economic sectors. Banking is a particular success story.

There’s one more thing. The government doesn’t differentiate in terms of gender. The UAE is a global leader in this respect. We have female UAE nationals integrated across all sectors. We have pilots, doctors, bankers – all on the same pay scale as men. In fact, there is a positive bias towards women in areas such as maternity allowances and tertiary education.

The UAE started initiating its e-government initiatives 15 years ago [online functionalities replacing what were previously manual processes]. More recently, it announced its smart government initiative, which is beyond e-government – a two-year plan to transform all services into smart services 24/7, 365 days a year, like any other service company. Government entities are now ranked against a five-star system, and the targets to improve customer satisfaction rates are directly linked to both employee performance and HR.

This had to be accompanied by changing mindsets in the way people work within the government. The mandate is that services be available on mobile, anywhere, anytime, with minimal manual interference – and the skills of the individuals within the government should adapt to this technology. This has increased the efficiency of operations and definitely increased productivity. Government employees went through significant changes in the way they react to requests and the services they provide.

There were many challenges in revisiting and reengineering many operations. While the vision itself was top-led, every level of government employee was involved in brainstorming cross-functionally. And we measured their success. For example, in HR we can check KPIs across all government departments through a dashboard system.

Government departments across the world have a tendency towards very top-down practices. Do you feel UAE entities have been guilty of this in the past, and how do you encourage a more innovative approach?

The UAE government has had a very smart way of ensuring the success of its various entities. They were asked to present plans and KPIs were set. Beyond that, there were independent means to ensure the quality of their success. The indicators are very important because they leave no room for people to be left behind. You have to adapt or become obsolete.

It is very challenging, definitely, because of human nature traits – not in everyone, but in some people. No objective is in motion unless forces are acted on. The force in this case has been to drive the change to transform the government, and everyone had to react to that change. Many people reacted positively, although no doubt there will always be pockets where people react differently. But there is no room for this, because everyone quickly becomes clear on whether they’re lagging behind. The government has developed various quality checks, means and tools to ensure the transformation has happened at the various levels.

In HR, we worked with the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) in developing comprehensive strategic and operational KPIs based on financial and business performance, as well as smart technology transformation, and we have linked these all together. What we do at FAHR is to lead the HR transformation through these KPIs.

Innovation is a big government focus. An initiative has been launched for government employees to get a diploma in innovation. Innovation guidelines and plans have been developed, and training provided to the various entities. In November, there’s an innovation week where entities will contribute on initiatives they have developed.

How do you see the role of HR in the UAE changing, and what part does FAHR play in this?

FAHR plays a role beyond a traditional civil service bureau. We act as a facilitator to the profession. We have kicked off initiatives to bring together local government, federal government and private sector specialists to share best practice. Notably, we have an initiative called the HR Club, which brings together various sectors and professions, to network, share success stories, transfer knowledge, and create the environment to grow the HR sector in the UAE.

We’ve been in touch with many international organisations to bring this kind of knowledge to the UAE. These include the CIPD and other global HR bodies. We transfer this knowledge to regional forums and an annual international conference, where we bring these speakers together. We publish practical HR papers and have been successful in attracting people from across the region to share in these best practices.

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