It is often assumed Emiratis prefer to work in the public sector, but while growing up Waleed Barhaji never considered it.
"Honestly, some part of me loves hardship. I enjoy obstacles and difficulties and resolving them,” he says. "If something keeps me busy, I am happy to do it, regardless of how long it takes.”
When he was young his dream was to become a dentist.
"My dad used to take me to this dentist in Abu Dhabi. He had a neat clinic and he drove a Porsche. When you are at such an impressionable age, you want to be like him. He had a nice life and was his own boss,” says Mr Barhaji.
Fast forward a few years and he was seriously considering a career in finance after he heard Citibank was looking for trainees.
At the time he was still in college studying for a bachelor's degree in business administration.
"I saw this as the best opportunity. I said to myself: ‘let me apply and work at the same time as I study', and so I joined Citibank's Dubai office in 1999.”
Today he is the head of distribution channels and unsecured assets at Noor Bank, an institution where Emiratis comprise more than 40 per cent of the workforce.
"Noor Bank has prioritised Emiratisation initiatives since inception in 2008 and ensured Emiratis have the opportunity to develop and grow in the financial sector,” says Hind Alattar, the head of human resource operations at Noor Bank.
"We intend to continue to maintain the Emiratisation ratio above 40 per cent and put initiatives and programmes in place to increase it further.”
But the bank does not only take on Emiratis with banking experience such as Mr Barhaji.
Its policy has been to hire and train people with potential, such as Badreya Al Dashti, an architectural engineering graduate with no experience in the financial industry.
When she graduated in the late 1990s, Dubai was a very different place. There were few large construction projects under way. Faced with a choice between pushing paperwork for Dubai Municipality or working in the private sector, she opted for the latter.
She worked for Al Futtaim arranging the layout of Ikea and was happy doing it.
"After a while I started to think about what was next. A friend gave my CV to a recruiting agency. The next day I got a call from the agency saying that a U.A.E. bank had openings for new graduates. I said: ‘I don't have any experience and have never been in a bank',” says Ms Al Dashti.
"She replied that the bank is going to train you. I was interviewed by the bank, and was shortlisted and chosen.”
Today she is the bank's head of public sector and large corporates unit and grateful for the opportunity Noor gave her.
"They always expressed belief in me and my ability, and I have seen them do the same with many of my colleagues,” she says.
The Emiratisation rate in Noor Bank is impressive, but in some institutions in the sector it is even higher. The Central Bank of the U.A.E. leads the way with a 64 per cent ratio at the end of the first half of this year.
In the private sector, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank's Emiratisation rate stood at 48 per cent at the end of last year – substantially higher than the average rate for national banks at 34 per cent. By comparison, just 21 per cent of the workforce in non-national banks are Emiratis, according to WAM.
But banking can be a hard sell among Emiratis. Banks do not tend to be their favourite industry for a number of reasons, according to Mr Barhaji.
"Banks do not follow the Government in terms of holidays and working hours. Emiratis have an active social life. The other thing is that they don't see a lot of progress in this industry,” he says.
It may not be easy to encourage Emiratis to enter banking, but the banks' Emiratisation efforts are considered to be ahead of the rest of the private sector.
"Whenever you have a conversation with private sector companies, they always say don't compare us with the banking sector. The banking sector also says the same thing,” says Abdul Al Hashimi, the managing director of Next Level Consultancy, a management company which specialises in Emiratisation.
Non-banking private companies say that nationalisation in the banking sector started a long time ago.
"There is a higher percentage of nationals in the banking sector and it is more mature. At the same time the banks would tell the private sector our challenges are bigger because the culture we have, we are obligated to fulfil, is maybe 10 times higher than what the private sector would have,” says Mr Al Hashimi.