Abeer Al Shaali is proud that her father Mohammed Al Shaali’s successful yacht-building business, Gulf Craft, has almost 2,000 employees from a wide range of nationalities.
“We’ve got Filipinos, Indians, Thais, Britons, Italians, Australians, Lebanese, Egyptian, other GCC nationals, and our CEO is Belgian. We have staff from everywhere, really”, says the Emirati Ms Al Shaali, who is Gulf Craft’s executive management officer. “But what we don’t really have is many Emiratis. That’s the issue we’re working on.”
Despite the UAE’s cultural tradition of dhow boatbuilding, Gulf Craft is struggling to find Emirati employees willing to work in the modern industry. The only Emiratis at the company apart from Ms Al Shaali are her father Mohammed, the chairman, and her brother Hussain – Gulf Craft’s research and development manager.
Ms Al Shaali thinks the shortfall is owing to a lack of awareness in local circles about the industry.
“The focus here has always been to go into the public sector, and I think people are just not aware that this industry exists here,” she says. “The UAE is heavily reliant on the service sector and that’s essential to building a vibrant society – but you need industry as the infrastructure of your economy.
“It’s a point of pride when you can build something from scratch and it says ‘made in the UAE’ on it”
Ms Al Shaali says she recently illustrated her point during a job interview with a potential new Emirati employee.
“I told him: ‘if you get your degree and end up at an oil company, you will, at best, be doing maintenance checks on a cargo ship. Whereas if you come work at Gulf Craft, you will be able to have dreams and draw them out and see them come to life as physical creations that will sail away from you, and that will go out and represent you in the world’. That should be motivation.”
Ms Al Shaali’s father co-founded Gulf Craft in 1982, while also serving as the UAE Ambassador to the US. The family lived in New York when Ms Al Shaali was very young, and she spent her high school years in Washington DC.
“We always came back to the UAE during the summer,” she recalls. “Going out on boats has always been something connected to my father. In the UAE we were a short trip away from the marina where we could just get on the boat and go. In the States, it was harder but my father still managed to berth a yacht there.”
Her own interest in the company came during her studies in Texas, when she asked her father to give her a job.
“I’d watched my father building up this company my whole life and was always very proud of him,” says Ms Al Shaali, now 36 and a mother of four children.
As the first Emirati woman to work at the company, she is based at the headquarters in Ajman. Now she is on a mission to find more women to join her.
“When my father first spoke to me a few years ago about hiring the first women – not secretaries, but staff in the design department - what he really wanted was to get a different aesthetic,” she says. “He appreciated the different skills and perspectives that women bring to a job. The company is flexible with working women too, we’re aware that our staff have families.”
To attract more Emirati staff, Gulf Craft plans to sponsor a maritime engineering and naval architecture student through a four-year-programme at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT).
HCT’s maritime dean, Martin Renilson, explains: “For the first two years it’s a general engineering programme, which can be done at any of the big HCT colleges – Sharjah, for example, which is near Gulf Craft’s offices in Ajman. The last two years involve specialist maritime courses taught in Abu Dhabi.”
Mr Renilson says the engineering aspect of the course is as important as the aesthetics of yacht-building. “These luxury yachts are not just boxes on water, they’re palaces,” says Mr Renilson, who is based at Abu Dhabi Men’s College. “So the naval architect designing these yachts has to understand not just the structure, but how it looks. I think females in particular would be very good at it.”
Gulf Craft also hopes to recruit interns, from any of the UAE’s colleges, for its new trainee programme. Interns are offered hands-on training in a variety of roles.
“An electrical engineer will work with circuit boards but all he’ll ever see is something on a screen, whereas when you go down into a yacht and you have to put the circuit together, then you realise all the actual physical obstacles you have to face,” says Ms Al Shaali. “He then understands that it’s not just a drawing with points and lines. He will have to figure out how his idea will work with the physical architecture of a boat.”
Ms Al Shaali adds: “People come to work here and they stay for 20 years. My father always says ‘I have heroes working for me’. And I think he believes it.”