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Expatriate-to-Emirati Switch Stuns Some UAE Academics

Emiratis recently replaced expatriates as branch directors at the Higher Colleges of Technology, the largest public university in the United Arab Emirates, amid a larger, continuing jumble in educational leadership.

Sources say the reboot is reducing the influence of foreigners in the expat-rich Emirates and abruptly disturbing the lives of those uprooted from the positions.

In late June, new branch directors at the Higher Colleges of Technology were appointed at five of the university’s 17 branch campuses across the UAE. The shifts hit Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Ras al-Khaimah.

The change is part of a broader, longstanding effort in the Emirates and other Gulf countries to replace foreigners with national citizens, both to employ more nationals and to respond to citizen dissatisfaction that so many sectors of the local economies are dominated by expatriates.

A source in the Emirates said leadership changes also hit the deputy director level, and that administration shifts have also taken place at Zayed University – another of the country’s three government-sponsored higher learning institutions.

“I’m not sure if it’s for the better or for the worse,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We just have to see what it brings.”

“It looks like they’re kind of taking it layer by layer,” the source said. “They’re almost making a structural change to the college itself, and that’s significant.”

The university did not immediately meet requests for an interview.

The leadership turnover at the Higher Colleges has unfolded rapidly. Some – if not all – of the expatriates who were fired were asked to leave their roles immediately. In some cases the individuals returned to their home country within a matter of days. Others chose to take alternative positions at the university.

“It was very abrupt and of course there is always the question of what you do and how you do it,” said a former branch director who was recently let go. “So if they want to ‘Emiratise’ positions, that’s what they’re doing. But how they’re doing it is a bit third world and brutal and doesn’t show much grace and appreciation for the hard work that expatriates have done, in some cases for a long, long time.” At least one of the directors had served for 20 years.

Students and colleagues at the Higher Colleges of Technology are likely to face a number of challenges as they adapt to brisk administrative change. But above all, the shifts unhinge the lives of expatriates, now uprooting their families and looking for other work at a moment’s notice. Visas to reside in the country are typically cancelled 30 days after employment unless extensions are granted.

“It totally threw our life upside down,” the former branch director said.

As a result of the changes foreigners will have less influence in the universities of a country where expatriates massively outnumber the local citizens. Foreigners are almost 80 percent of the Emirates’ population, according t0 a 2012 report by the Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre.

“Over the years HCT has actively worked with the Emiratisation efforts of the industry by placing over 60,000 highly qualified graduates to take up key roles in UAE’s labor market and economy,” HCT chancellor Mohammed Al Shamsi was quoted as saying in The National newspaper, which is published in Abu Dhabi and owned by the government.

“Today, it is restructuring to meet its own Emiratisation goals and directives,” he said, according to The National’s report.

One source suggested that Emiratisation may be just one reason for the shifts. “There are a lot of factors floating around,” he said.

“They’re restructuring HCT now where it’s more centrally controlled academically,” the source said. The directors are more like community liaisons than administrators who run the campuses, the source said. “So I think it’s a shift in how they want to manage HCT, where the directors have direct links personally to the communities that they live in and establish relationships.”

Regardless, there are signs of efforts to drive the Emiratisation policy elsewhere.

In the latest effort to drive the policy, which extends to government office posts, the General Secretariat of the Executive Council, which handles administration for the country’s top department of government, fired most of its foreign staff on July 4, Reuters reported, which could be as many as 70 people.

But while the idea is to bolster job opportunities for locals, some Emiratis are angry at how the shifts are unfolding, prompting several Emirati nationals at the Higher Colleges  to resign. They apparently don’t want to be part of an organization that operates in such a harsh manner, a source familiar with the situation said.

For now, the jumble isn’t expected to hit the professor level.

“It’s one thing to change an administration,” a source said. “It’s another one to be able to find enough qualified faculty.”

Faculty changes may be next, as more and more qualified Emiratis prepare for university teaching

One Comment

  1. It was always about HOW the termination is carried out. For some, I’m sure, it’s like a retirement, but without the appreciation and celebration of many years of valued contribution.

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