Seated in her villa in Al Khawaneej in Dubai, Laila Ali Hareb Al Muhairi reflects on success as she sips a cup of tea.
Although she has been working in the government sector for over two decades and is now assistant director general of Strategy and International Affairs at the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), for her, success is as much a concern as it is a challenge. ‘Women have to work doubly hard to prove ourselves and no matter how successful we are, it’s never easy,’ she says.
From directing the GCAA, to winning the Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Government Excellence Award for the best strategic planning in a government body, to laying the foundation of environmental sustainability in the aviation sector, to bagging several prestigious national awards, Laila’s is a story of tenacity, grit and determination.
‘It’s been a struggle to succeed but I was reluctant to give up at any point. I constantly want to keep proving myself and I am pleased with where I have reached,’ says Laila.
The climb has not been easy, though. ‘I am a single mother to three children, two girls and a boy, and I firmly believe that success at work and the amount of money one has should not be the drivers of our lives. At the end of the day, it’s the quality of life that we leave for our children that matters most.’
Laila admits that she owes a lot to her mother. ‘I think I must have inherited my fighting spirit from my mother, Moza Saeed Rashid Al Hebsi,’ she says. ‘She belonged to the Al Haboos mountain tribe of Ras Al Khaimah and was like a warrior princess, tough and fearless. She married when she was just 13, to an Al Muhairi, a man who was 10 years older than her. My father Ali Saif Bin Hareb Al Muhairi, was an engineer on ships and my mother struggled a lot [with] seven children while he was at sea.’
Laila and her siblings grew up in Frij Murar, in Deira, Dubai. ‘It was a tough life,’ she says.
‘We lived in a one-room house and slept on the floor. But growing up in those conditions taught us some important life lessons. My mother was tough with all of us. There was no space for sentiments. I never heard her say “I love you” to any of us,’ remembers Laila.
While growing up, Laila wanted to be a doctor. ‘Aviation was nowhere on my agenda at the time,’ she says. ‘I loved medical procedures, so when I got into the UAE University I was given a choice of three subjects, and I chose medical, engineering and information technology. In the 1980s, IT was a new subject and the college authorities in their bid to push the new course, convinced me that software engineering was the way forward and I embraced it wholeheartedly,’ she says.
After graduating, Laila took off for Boulder, Colorado, in the US, for a master’s degree, but she was called back home by her mum even before she could start on the course. ‘Mother wrote to me saying that there was a job at the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) that I should take up immediately,’ says Laila. ‘I came back to find that there was not just a job waiting for me, but also a husband. I was only 21.’
Laila joined Dewa in 1994 as a graduate trainee and stayed in that position for almost six years. ‘I did everything from simple help-desk tasks such as fixing equipment to software development, but I found the work environment stifling. It was also a difficult time for me personally as my marriage was falling apart. I had two daughters and as a young mother I found the situation extremely challenging both at home and at work. I grew in my role as a manager and then a senior manager, but felt I wasn’t reaching my potential. I had to move on to build a better life.’
Along the way, Laila was also afflicted by a life-threatening illness – encephalitis. ‘It left me totally paralysed. I had to go to rehab, and learnt how to eat, speak, and walk all over again.’
In the early Noughties, she moved out of her job and her marriage, remarried, had her third child, a boy, in 2005, but the second marriage did not last. ‘However, in the middle of all the crises in my life, I wanted to prove myself. The Roads and Transport Authority was established in 2005 and I saw an opportunity there. At that time the Metro stations were just being built and I thought it would be exciting to be part of rebuilding the city.’
Laila sent off her CV to the chairman of RTA and was offered the role of assistant director of strategy. ‘I took up the challenge and within two months rose the ranks as director of strategy,’ says Laila.
Over the next few years at the RTA, she grew to manage all strategic planning, putting in place RTA systems, laws, policies, and establishing the largest call centre and an award-winning customer relation management system. ‘My son was only a few months old when I joined the RTA but few in the office knew I had a baby. I worked very hard, many days until almost midnight, to prove myself,’ she says.
While Laila agrees that there is no substitute for hard work, she is against women being so hard on themselves. ‘The right kind of support in a woman’s life makes all the difference,’ she says. ‘We should not be made to feel guilty for being mothers, for having children. At work, women are often told off for taking a short break or even answering phone calls from home.
‘It shouldn’t have to be like that. I sometimes regret not having spent much time with my children. I wish we could work like men – they don’t have the pressure to prove themselves.’
Once the Metro project was on track, Laila quit the RTA, a month before the launch of the Dubai Metro. ‘I wanted to spend some quality time with my children,’ she says.
However, the thirst to take on more challenges led to Laila taking up a new challenge after being head hunted by the GCAA in 2009 to play a key role in transforming the organisation. ‘It was a very critical period for the organisation,’ she says. Soon after she joined, Laila initiated a transformation journey, starting with creating new work structures and establishing a sound management foundation. Under her guidance the GCAA updated and modernised their regulations to become, in 2015, number one in the world in safety, complying with the regulations and best practices of the International Civil Aviation Authority.
‘This has made the UAE a benchmark in the field of aviation,’ says Laila proudly. ‘My responsibilities include consumer protection, and creating better awareness of aviation with the younger generation in schools and colleges.’
Laila has received several awards – she was recognised as one of 70 inspiring women of the world by the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA); won the Stevie award in Boston, US, in the Creative Ladies in Work category and also received the Best Professional Aviation Women award from the Dubai Quality Group in 2015.
‘But my greatest satisfaction lies in the understanding that as a woman at the helm of GCAA I have been able to make a difference in the lives of other women,’ she says.
There is still a lot of work to be done to create a better work-life balance for women, she says. ‘It’s surprising how [some] women leaders oppose better work conditions for women on the grounds that we are to be treated equally as men.’
Optimistic and constantly seeking more worlds to conquer, Laila believes a woman can deliver a lot more at work. ‘But she has to be treated differently. Her personal time, her role as a wife, mother or daughter has to be treated with respect. That is sure to create even more women achievers,’ she says.