Take the Day Off

Why the United Arab Emirates is hoping more days off will lead to more private sector work.

The United Arab Emirates believes that a few extra days off from work may make a world of difference.

The UAE government has standardized the number of public holidays that workers receive, regardless of whether their employer is in the public or private sector. The move is part of the country’s efforts to get its citizens to consider taking jobs in the private sector over traditionally preferred government work.

Experts say the holiday change is vital because the UAE needs the privately owned business sector to take the reins in growing the economy and employing the local citizens. About 70% of Emiratis work in public sector jobs, and the country is heavily dependent on energy revenues. “The change in holiday allowances is an important step forward in making the private sector attractive to nationals,” says Vijay Gandhi, the Dubai-based regional director for Korn Ferry Products in EMEA.

Traditionally, leaving college for a government job in the UAE offered higher pay and lower risk than a private sector role. However, that is changing fast. Government salaries for graduates were once double what the private sector would pay, but now they are equivalent, Gandhi says. “Previously, the public sector was more attractive; it was paternalistic,” he says. The holiday standardization helps tip the scales further in favor of people taking jobs in private commerce.

Nevertheless, experts say that more changes are needed to help diversify the economy and offer more career opportunities to locals. Dubai, one of the UAE’s key city-states, has a flourishing tourism industry. That’s great when people travel to the city, but less so when they don’t or can’t due to travel restrictions. When the tourists don’t show up, they don’t spend money. “The tourism industry is dependent on foot-fall,” says Jonathan Holmes, Korn Ferry’s Dubai-based managing director for the Middle East and Africa. “If you get an issue on international travel, then suddenly the economy gets a little flaky.”

Other longer-term efforts to diversify the economy could get a boost via the country’s nascent space program, which started in 2014. Just like a generation of American kids got excited when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, the same could happen to UAE citizens later this year when the UAE sends its first astronaut to the International Space Station.

The excitement surrounding sending a citizen into space has the potential to help drive a multipronged agenda of change in the country, says Holmes. One notable area that could get exploited is a push to get more people to pursue so-called STEM education—schooling in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. “Space travel is a classic example of something that interests young people,” he says. And like anywhere, people study what interests them.

Creating interest in the STEM areas could also help build a skilled workforce and perhaps spark a virtuous cycle in the private sector. Having more locals educated in sciences will help attract more technology companies to set up shop in the country, and in turn that motivates students to study these subjects, and so on. “Science-based industries tend to be innovative and can provide more career opportunities,” says Holmes.