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Labor: a 'most critical' issue

By a staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 13, 1982



Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

They are a minority in their own country. Of an estimated United Arab Emirates population of 1 million, only about 200,000 are said to be U.A.E. nationals. The rest - 80 percent - are expatriates and imported laborers.

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Largely uneducated and unskilled, and seriously outnumbered, U.A.E. nationals are nonetheless in great demand. The government wants and needs them to step into key positions in government, commerce, and industry - as soon as possible.

And so an entire generation, many of them sons and daughters of Bedouin sheepherders, must be trained and educated, not only to replace expatriates but to take hold of and guide the future of the country.

To this end the government is sparing no expense. U.A.E. nationals attending college not only receive government compensation for tuition and expenses but are also paid for attending classes. Graduates who wish to pursue higher degrees do so with government support for as long as they wish to remain in school.

The U.A.E. labor situation is seen by the government as one of the most critical problems facing the country.

Though the government is understood to monitor closely the number of nationals and foreigners here, such statistics are not published or discussed in public.

The largest community of foreign workers is Indian, with an estimated 300,000 working at all levels, but primarily as unskilled laborers and construction workers. There are also some 250,000 Pakistanis, also working primarily as unskilled laborers. Most of these workers began coming in the oil boom years and literally built Abu Dhabi (now a city of 400,000 with a local population of 50,000), as well as the roads, power plants, schools, hospitals, and much of the housing throughout the U.A.E. In 1968, before the boom, the population of the seven sheikhdoms which now constitute the U.A.E. was 115,000.

The government had planned that as the major construction projects began to wind down in the 1980s the foreign population would recede. Observers now say, however, that it looks as if the foreigners are pretty much here to stay. The economy would suffer if the population fell.

And the larger, more populous and prosperous emirates in particular - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah - are seen as likely to remain dependent on present levels of expatriate labor indefinitely. Nationals, as they are educated and trained, are expected to enter the economy as decisionmakers. But the need for foreigners - whether as oil technicians or as garbage men - is expected to remain.

The foreign population is not seen as an immediate threat to internal security. Nonetheless, since only 12 percent of the 40,000-man Army are nationals, the long-term security concerns are apparent.

However, the expatriates' interest ''is in making as much money as they can and then to go home,'' as one official put it.

Expatriates, including Iranians and Palestinians, ''have no reason to rock the boat, they have the political support of the regime, financial support, and they get work here,'' a diplomat said. ''They like it here, they are happy.''