Abu Dhabi's Masdar Institute emphasising high-tech skills for job market


Scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, prior to its merger in early 2017, were adapting the latest data mining techniques to predict how job markets will evolve in the face of digitisation and automation of workplace functions. The answers they find could be vital to the emirate’s leaders and should provide young people at the start of their careers with a roadmap for success.

However, as with many economies around the world, there are signs in the data on unemployment that this message does not always get through. The challenge for Abu Dhabi’s educators is to try to prepare their pupils for the world of work and to help them avoid finding themselves in a skills mismatch where their qualifications do not suit the needs of employers. A continuing emphasis on vocational education and skills training should help bridge many of these gaps in the long term.

The Research

The Masdar Institute team, which is based in Abu Dhabi, has spent two years developing a database customised to jobs in the UAE and based on research conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) using the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) – a US Department of Labour classification of almost 1000 occupational characteristics. By comparing data for different years of O*NET the MIT researchers in the US were able to discern patterns in occupational skill requirements.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Masdar Institute have used their own database to analyse occupations from job advertisements placed on job search engines such as Monster Gulf and Naukri Gulf and produced a weighted list showing the skills most in demand in different economic areas, such as Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas sector. The Masdar Institute team included: Mohammad Omar, department head and professor of engineering systems management; Wei Lee Woon, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Zeyar Aung, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Yousef Al Hammadi, assistant professor of engineering systems management; PhD students Reem Al Junaibi and Armin Alibasic; and master’s student Wala’ Al Khader. When Al Khader used the tool developed at the Masdar Institute to examine key employment sectors across the UAE, she found high-skills occupations in medicine, education, computing and engineering are increasingly in demand at a time of rising automation, while lower-skills jobs in construction and machine operating are disappearing.

Employment Data

While research at the Masdar Institute, which now falls under the Khalifa University umbrella, is ongoing, data from the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD) shows that, at present, more UAE nationals are employed by traditional sectors than the sectors identified as in demand by Al Khader. According to the “Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi 2016”, of all UAE nationals living in Abu Dhabi in 2015, 17.3% of women and 2.1% of men worked in education, while 6.7% of women and 1.8% of men worked in health and social services. In addition just 4.2% of women and 1.9% of men worked in professional, scientific or technical work. The sector that is most significant to Emiratis of both genders living in Abu Dhabi in 2015 was public administration and defence, which accounted for 60.9% of employment of all Emirati men in Abu Dhabi and 36.9% of Emirati women. The mining and quarrying sector, which includes the oil and gas industry, employed 11.7% of Emirati men in Abu Dhabi and 6.9% of Emirati women.

When unemployment patterns are considered, however, 33.3% of all unemployed citizens in Abu Dhabi, the largest proportion of all, are graduates with a first degree. This level of education presents more challenges for women, with 42% of unemployed female nationals in Abu Dhabi having a bachelor’s degree, compared to 23.7% of male nationals with the same degree. For Abu Dhabi’s male citizens, the highest level of unemployment was among those who had completed only secondary school and constituted 36.9% of male unemployment, but only 25.5% of unemployed Emirati women. Because more young women in Abu Dhabi attend university than young male nationals in the emirate, these figures would appear to suggest it is harder for young citizens in Abu Dhabi to secure work when they have just left full-time education. This could mean that many undergraduate degree choices and high school certificates fail to impress potential employers.

Subject Choice

Clues about the difficulties graduates face in securing their first employment can also be found in an examination of their subject choices at university. The most recent data produced on private universities from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR), which merged into the Ministry of Education in 2016, show that business was by far the most popular subject across the UAE, with a total of 24,918 students enrolled in such courses, compared to 15,340 for engineering, 10,643 for law, 6626 for mass communication, 5815 for humanities, 3975 for medical sciences and 3126 for IT. According to the latest data for 2014, Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi campus received 438 applications from students for business courses, compared to 109 for information sciences.

Another factor affecting subject choices are the grade boundaries that are demanded by higher education institutions in the UAE and the numbers of Abu Dhabi students achieving the highest grades in their General School Certificate. Students studying in Abu Dhabi must achieve a grade average of 70% or more to study for an undergraduate degree, but for engineering they must achieve 80% in maths and science, while prospective medical students must have at least an 85% generally. According to MHESR data, in 2015 just 7% of male students in Abu Dhabi, 155 in all, and 16.8% of female students, or 321, had marks that would qualify for medicine or life sciences. An additional 866 men (39.3%) and 729 (38.1%) women had grades of 80-90%, enabling them to apply for engineering programmes.

Examining subject choices, then, there would appear to be large numbers of young people in Abu Dhabi who see a future for themselves in business, finance or administration, and a reasonable number interested in engineering, but gaps in medicine, computing or IT, all of which are likely to be highly in demand as the population grows and new technologies, are developed. Their choices may also be shaped by the generation that has gone before them, who have benefitted from government employment, rather than by the government’s own vision of a more aspirational, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial new cohort of young citizens in Abu Dhabi hoping to make their mark in the private sector.


Part of the challenge for both policymakers and educators in Abu Dhabi, given the rapidly changing shape of the workplace, is to identify roles currently occupied by skilled or professional expatriate staff that might be performed by suitably qualified Emiratis at a time in the future when oil wealth may not be sufficient to support tens of thousands of public sector jobs. The kinds of low-skill, low-pay jobs seen as diminishing in significance in the Masdar Institute study are precisely the kind of occupations typically undertaken by expatriate male labourers, such as construction and machine operation. It may well be that these kinds of jobs are not typically advertised on the job search engines studied by the Masdar Institute, as in 2015 21% of the expatriate workforce was employed in construction, including 25.7% of all foreign male workers, according to SCAD’s 2016 yearbook. Based on the latest SCAD data for 2011, this would suggest 270,270 of the 1.29m foreign workers in Abu Dhabi are in construction, compared to a total national workforce of 116,400. As of 2015, a further 8.3% of the expatriate workforce was employed in manufacturing, including 9.8% of male foreign workers. When it comes to skills, 23.7% of expatriates regard themselves as working in a craft or trade, compared to 1% of nationals. Among foreign labourers, 15.3% describe themselves as machine operators, compared to 2.9% of national workers. Furthermore, 19.5% of overseas staff see themselves as unskilled, including 78.4% of women who said they have an elementary occupation, likely due to 64.8% of them working in households.

The proportion of citizens in the emirate reporting that they are employed in an elementary occupation was 0.2% in 2015, according to SCAD. The implication would appear to be that if the shift towards more automated production processes threatens the existence of low-pay, low-skill workers, as predicted by the World Economic Forum, does in fact take place in Abu Dhabi, then the jobs of expatriate men in manual construction or their female counterparts in menial domestic service seem more at risk from new technology than are occupations favoured by Emiratis in Abu Dhabi. The greater threat for national workers is from disruptive technologies in the production and consumption of energy that might erode oil prices and so reduce government revenues and employment prospects in the civil service.

New Industries

In the meantime, education providers are increasingly offering courses designed to help Emiratis learn vocational skills that are applicable to new industries being established in Abu Dhabi. For instance, students with an interest in aerospace can choose to specialise in that area by taking a secondary technical school certificate in aviation maintenance from grades 10 to 12 at the Secondary Technical Schools (STSs) of the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (ADVETI).

Following this level, the student may then apply to study for one of several undergraduate diplomas in aircraft engineering technologies at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic, or a bachelor’s degree in aviation at Abu Dhabi University or in aerospace engineering at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology. Following undergraduate education, they may choose to take a master’s in space systems and technology, formerly at the Masdar Institute and now at the KU entity. Similar options, both theoretical and applied, are available at different stages of education in health sciences, IT, media and engineering.


The Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ACTVET) says it has witnessed growth and improvements in its vocational students’ performance. According to ACTVET, from 2010 the number of institutions it runs has risen from nine to 49, while student numbers have increased by 196%. In the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment university entrance tests, students from ACTVET’s Applied Technical High Schools (ATHS) and STSs are 11.7% and 4%, respectively, above average, and 82% of university-bound ATHS students in 2016 were not required to take a foundation year, which was up from 59% in 2014.


Emirati citizens are entitled to a free state education at the undergraduate level, and there are postgraduate scholarships available as well. However, as citizens in Abu Dhabi become more highly qualified and take over roles once held by professional expatriates, some education sectors typically serving mid-career foreign staff may face challenging times. Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde has a well-established master of business administration programme with campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The average age of people enrolling on their programmes is 34 and this includes around 16 different nationalities. “Typically, we would expect 50-60 students to enrol each year in Abu Dhabi, but in October 2016 the intake dropped by 25%, because people are afraid for their jobs in the light of lay-offs at some of the biggest employers,” Ron Bradfield, director of Strathclyde Business School Abu Dhabi, told OBG. “There are huge price pressures now, because there is a lot of uncertainty and job insecurity,” he added.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2017

Education chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2017

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