Emirati woman leader, Omaira Farooq Al Olama, discusses her integral role in shaping UAE’s workforce
Some people naturally fall into their careers. Their current roles are poles apart from their five-year plan, with Master’s in a field so unrelated, that a step back almost feels bizarre. “Criminology is a lot like technology. Medicine is constantly evolving, and I just don’t have the energy to get back into it and study all over again. Plus, I have three daughters below the age of ten,” says Omaira Farooq Al Olama, Managing Director of the ALF Administration Training, and Dubai’s first female Master’s graduate in Criminology.
Omaira and I met at LimeTree Café on Sheikh Zayed Road, a café known to fuel moms with their daily dose of caffeine, especially after the morning school run. Her morning was similar, having just dropped off the children at school in Jumeirah. “Thank God, my kids are at that age where they understand they need to get dressed on time, and do things by themselves,” she tells us.
But it hasn’t always been a rosy path for Omaira, even though the Emirati-native – who grew up in California – is the poster child. She went through a divorce when her little ones were below the age of two, nonetheless, refused to be a victim of society. “People need to realise divorce isn’t taboo, and shouldn’t be shunned upon. The best thing to do is say you failed, and move on. We always beat ourselves down, thinking we spoiled our family’s name, and the worst part is that children see that you are upset and then they reflect this and make the wrong choices too. It’s terrible,” she says.Instead of living in despair, Omaira invested all her savings in a home in Jumeirah Beach Residence, choosing an apartment on the Upper Plaza Level as she was afraid of heights – she was that determined to break society norms and make it – but ready to pave her own path. “I didn’t want to be a burden to my parents and move back home. I was blessed to be able to get my own place,” says Omaira.
As fate would have it, she found love – her second husband – in her building elevator, giving this story the silver lining it deserves. It dawned on me, as we spoke, that Omaira was responsible for three girls (twins and a younger baby) below the age of two, at the time of divorce. That must have been a mission? I questioned. “You know, I firmly believe in asking for help when you need it. I hired night-service nannies, so that I could get great sleep and in turn, function properly at work,” she says. “I tell my students this all the time. It’s okay to ask for help, and to say you don’t know something and can’t do it anymore,” says Omaira, referring to her current role.
When Omaira relocated to UAE, in 2001, she dove straight into the world of criminology. Pursuing her career for a few years, before joining the Criminal Frauds section at Dubai Holding and Nakheel. While at the job, she realised that the UAE nationals were always bored out of their mind at training sessions. “We had these amazing tutors from England, the States, India, and they were extremely skilled, but somehow the nationals weren’t interested,” she tells me. Omaira soon found out that it was due to a lack of a connection, and that these tutors didn’t understand the nationals or their character. “My peers said I understood them better because of my Western upbringing. The fact that I was used to their culture.”
In 2011, Omaira took matters into her hands, knowing that UAE nationals had great potential and could succeed in the workplace, with a bit of guidance. “I went to the Mohammed bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders with my idea of opening a training company. I saw the niche and what was needed for UAE nationals to achieve things and become confident in their work,” says Omaira.Currently, she works with 2,000 students a year, training them to understand work ethics, change their mindset, the importance of work culture, responsibility and accountability – things they can’t learn in a textbook. The programs depend on the capacity of the national, however banks usually hire her for a period of time. United Arab Bank did so for one year, to train 15 nationals – from junior level positions to managerial – to grow from Point A to B. She has also worked with CitiBank, Emirates NBD – to train 200 nationals – Emirates Islamic Bank, and DEWA, to name a few organizations. While the focus is primarily on nationals, Omaira’s team work with expats too. “They have great work ethics. However, they sometimes think their job is on the line and that they can lose it to a national. We make them understand that if they are great at what they do and bring value to the company, they won’t. Likewise, if they offer guidance to these UAE nationals, they will move up a tier, while the nationals replace them. It’s a win-win situation for both,” she says.
Like most cases, the problem needs to be fixed at the root of it all. “We used to work in the same building as HH Sheikh Mohammed, and I remember him talking to us about how UAE nationals are lucky they are given jobs because they are citizens. It’s true. Nowhere else in the world we get this opportunity, yet we take it for granted.” Omaira tells us the biggest challenge she faces is altering that mindset, especially with young graduates. Most of them think they need to step into a managerial position the minute they graduate. That’s where her team come in. They make them understand the importance of working from the ground up. “My first job was photocopying, and I took it, because how else am I going to learn?” She believes that graduates need to earn their stripes and demonstrate how they can handle their responsibilities, before managing a workforce. “What is being a manager anyway? It’s all about people skills and building a team. You can’t do that if you haven’t worked a day in your life. These things come with practice and time.”
Through her career, Omaira has been inspired by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his vision for UAE nationals. When Omaira was asked to speak at TedxAlWaslWomen, she couldn’t agree more that the topic was a seamless fit. It was all about “bridges” – about how you build it, burn it, and interpret it the way you like. “My life is very different from the typical married woman. I spoke about my Western upbringing, about how I had to create my own bridge and join both cultures, because at the end of the day my heritage was Emirati. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but I learnt it, though my annual visits back home and interaction with the family,” she tells us.
As I think back to my interview, I realise Omaira is a wholeheartedly giving sort of woman. The type who wants to help women who are on the path she was, guide her nation and its people, and assist them in all walks of life. This is seen in her company’s humanitarian sect as well, wherein she employs UAE nationals that are divorced and widowed, understanding that they have mouths to feed at the end of the day. “We work with 150 women from all emirates. Most women don’t want to upset their families by going out into the workplace, so we send them printers and laptops so that they can work from home, and they are doing great,” she says.
Currently, Omaira is in discussion with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to help UAE Nationals moving abroad for university or work. “I want them to be able to understand the culture, become adaptable, accountable, and realise they can’t take life easy. If they miss their class or don’t turn up to an internship on time, they will lose their chance – it isn’t like Dubai. I was them, I never understood the importance of an internship and starting from the bottom, but now I do,” she says.
As for her future goals, Omaira sees her business expanding to other GCC countries and the world, before she retires to Boston for the cold winter breeze and snow.