I still remember August 2, 1990, like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday, and I was awoken at 6.30am by a friend whose extended family were Kuwaiti. He told me that his brother-in-law was claiming that there were Iraqi troops in Kuwait City, and that he could hear gunfire and explosions. Like everybody else, I spent the weekend oscillating between shock, anger and fear. What did that mean for the future of the region, and more specifically, for the UAE?
At the time, I was the head of HR for a company in the petrochemical industry, and we had everything from offshore platforms to shipping and loading facilities under our remit. I spent most of August and September 1990 in meetings with various government agencies, as well as other HR managers, planning and aligning our response to the invasion. There was palpable concern across the country, and as more and more international troops started making their way to the Gulf, that increased.
There were humorous moments, too. Standing at the checkout counter in Spinney’s one day, I couldn’t help notice that the lady behind me in the queue had two trolleys: one full of boxes of water, the other tins of baked beans. Nothing else. I looked at her young son standing behind her, and felt tremendous sympathy for his dietary future.
My belief in Emiratisation was shaped significantly by my experiences during this period. I still remember the first engineer who came into my office with a resignation letter, and a request to speed up his exit from the country. His simple explanation was that this wasn’t his country and he hadn’t signed up to be in a war zone. By early September, he was on his way back to Australia.
During my meetings with other HR managers, I came across a very mercenary attitude towards the country. Some international companies closed and removed all of their staff from the country. To this day, I refuse to do any business with those companies who dropped us like a hot potato at the first hint of risk. Other companies left skeleton staff and insisted that all families had to leave.
It was at that point that I realised that when the going gets tough, we would always have to rely on ourselves. We would need to be able to keep our infrastructure going ourselves. Our water, electricity, communications and emergency services would all have to be operated and maintained by Emiratis. That was the only guarantee we could have that if we were ever faced with a similar threat in the future, we would be able to rely on our own citizens to keep the country going.
While other companies were choosing the easier path to Emiratisation by focusing on administrative and clerical functions, we invested all of our efforts into upskilling Emiratis in the operations and maintenance departments. We developed an agreement with the government of Alberta, Canada, whereby our employees completed a Canadian apprenticeship, going through the same hoops as any Canadian would. I was very proud of the young men who weathered the storm (figuratively and literally) of resistance, and became skilled plant operators, millwrights, machinists, high-voltage electricians, welders, etc. They proved that with the right planning and preparation, and more importantly, with an organisation that supported them throughout the process, they could go toe to toe with anybody, anywhere in the world.
Emiratisation isn’t only a social imperative, or an aspirational one; it’s a matter of national security.
Ammar Shams has a degree in economics and postgraduate degree in law, with a focus in Islamic law.
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