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Working Lives: United Arab Emirates


Abu Dhabi is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbour Dubai, but the capital of the United Arab Emirates is growing rapidly and attracting workers from around the world.

Many expats see it as a land of opportunity. Some come to make their fortune, others simply to get a job often unavailable at home. Meanwhile, more Emiratis are joining the workforce to shape the future of their country.

The BBC's Amandeep Bhangu meets five people living in Abu Dhabi to hear about their working lives.

media captionHamda Al Qubaisi wants to repay her country for its generosity

Hamda al-Qubaisi represents a new wave of working Emiratis. Aged 26, she is a first officer for Etihad Airways and regularly piloting an Airbus A320 on short-haul flights around the region.

Like many of her compatriots who have shared in their country's vast oil wealth, she has no need to work, but she says: "I want to work. I want to give back to my country because they've given so much to me."

She spotted an advert in a newspaper for trainee pilots, applied and was accepted for Etihad's training scheme, which is fully paid for by the government.

"I couldn't have become a pilot without this funding," she says. "If it was based abroad I don't think my family would've allowed it.

"I just applied to tease my brothers. I told them that I wanted to be a pilot and they said you cannot do it. So from that point I thought I have to do it, I have to prove that they're wrong."

Aviation is a key part of the government's goals to diversify the economy beyond oil dependency.

The UAE is riding a boom in long-haul travel, particularly between Asia and the West, providing a prime stopover.

Dubai is now the busiest airport in the world but Abu Dhabi is home to the national carrier, Etihad one of the world's fastest-growing airlines.

The more challenging part for Ms al-Qubaisi has been making her way in a male-dominated working industry

"I always do double the effort of my male colleagues to show them I can do the job. Eventually I want to be a captain. I love flying. Everyday there's a different view."

media captionShaikha Mohammad Al Kaabi

Another Emirati woman on the move is Shaikha Mohammad al-Kaabi, a business developer by day who was driven by her passion for Emirati food to set up a food truck to entice visitors away from the city's five-star restaurants.

"I realised when people come on holiday to Abu Dhabi they don't try Emirati food, and even when you ask people who live here what their favourite Emirati food is, they often name Middle Eastern or Lebanese food," says the 33-year-old.

Last November she established Meylas, a food truck restaurant that serves Emirati snacks. Customers use social media to find out where it is and can tuck into dishes inspired by her mother's and grandmother's recipes.

She comes from a wealthy and influential Abu Dhabi family but insists her work is her life.

"I couldn't exist without working. It's important to me. I want to prove myself to my parents. And as Emiratis we want to prove ourselves to the outside world, which thinks we live off our family and country's wealth.

"But if you come here, you'll see we work and we are happy to share our home and culture with those that move here."

In fact, the name of her business captures this spirit. Meylas is a local expression that means "a place to gather, akin to a living room".

media captionDorian Paul Rogers' arts event business is striking a chord

Dorian Paul Rogers moved from the United States to Abu Dhabi in 2011, as one of the millions of expats who come to the UAE for better work opportunities.

A teacher by profession, he says his real passion is organising cultural events. Three years ago he started Rooftop Rhythms, a poetry and music open-mic evening that tapped into the growing grassroots cultural scene. What began as a monthly event evidently hit a chord with expats and Emiratis, and is now one of the biggest poetry open-mic events in the Middle East.

"Now I'm running several events throughout the month, from Arabic poetry to soul-and-blues nights, and I just hosted an international poetry festival," Mr Rogers says, adding that he has decided to give up teaching and do this full-time.

"I couldn't have dreamed of the success I would see in the UAE." As someone who has toured the world, he says Rooftop Rhythms is one of the most diverse events he has seen as regards the nationalities of performers and those attending.

Mr Rogers, reflecting on his experiences of organising and performing at such events in the US, says there are differences.

His events have "a few rules to make sure we are aligned with the UAE's appropriateness" guidelines. Each performer is aware that offensive language, vulgarity, speech on politics involving the UAE, or promotion of any religion besides Islam will not be tolerated.

But he does not feel compromised as an organiser or as a spoken-word artist himself. "I moved to the UAE with the idea that I was a humble guest ready to adapt to a new society and culture. When you visit anyone's home, there are house rules that you must follow. There's still plenty of scope for artists without a need to be offensive."

media captionElsa Fortuna Callado is able to support her family in the Philippines

With 80% of residents in the UAE coming from abroad, expats fall into many categories. There are plenty of bankers and others who go to work in a suit but there are also people such as Elsa Fortuna Callado, a taxi driver who came to the UAE from the Philippines five years ago.

"The money is much better here and there weren't enough jobs back home," she says.

"Here I earn tax-free and the tips are really good, so I can save up enough to send back home."

Her day usually starts around 7am because many of her regular customers are families with children to drop off to school. She sees her friends during her lunch break, before the afternoon school run starts.

"I like my job because I get to talk to lots of people every day and there is no boss," she says. "I am my own boss."

She also has a lot of single female passengers.

"They prefer a female driver, especially for long journeys," she adds.

Her company requires her to wear a shayla as part of her uniform, as she must cover her hair if there is a man in the taxi.

Away from work, Ms Fortuna Callado spends time with friends, visits her local Catholic church - next to a mosque - and spends time with her sister and cousin, who also work in Abu Dhabi. They share a small apartment together.

Relaxation sometimes takes her to her favourite Filipino restaurant in the backstreets of the Old City. This is the alternative side of Abu Dhabi, away from the glitzy five-star hotels, that most tourists do not see but which is popular with those in the know who want international cuisine at cheap prices.

"It's proper home cooking and reminds us of back home," she says.

media captionUAE Working Lives: Business leader

Hamza Kazim is a senior figure in the Masdar Institute, an Abu Dhabi organisation whose ambition is to advance the clean energy industry not just in the capital of the UAE but "around the world".

He is certainly in the right place.

The car-free environment of Masdar, powered by the sun and cooled by wind, is working to become the world's most sustainable low-carbon city.

"I was here when it was just sand, and I've watched it grow in front of my eyes," says Mr Kazim, who is Masdar's head of finance and operations.

Masdar, designed by the London-based sustainable architecture practice Foster + Partners, combines 21st Century engineering with traditional desert architecture to deliver zero-carbon comfort.

"The compact design of these narrow streets, based on ancient Arab cities, provides shade to pedestrians and funnels breezes through them so it's much cooler here than within the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi," he says.

The town, due to be completed in 2025, will eventually be home to 50,000 people. It relies entirely on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, and a desalinisation plant will provide water, 80% of which will be recycled. Biological waste will be turned into fertiliser.

"I'm really excited about the cutting-edge discoveries we're working on here that could revolutionise medicine and science, not just renewable energy technology," says Mr Kazim.

"People don't often see these types of ideas coming from the Arab world, so it's great that we can be a platform for this."

Working Lives is part of UAE Direct a season of features online and on BBC World News about the United Arab Emirates.

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