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To celebrate Emirati Women’s Day, Najeeba Al Jabri explains how she succeeds at work without sacrificing time with her family

Emirates Global Aluminium is the world’s largest ‘premium aluminium’ producer and the biggest industrial company in the United Arab Emirates outside oil and gas. This means EGA employees have a great responsibility. Industries from automotive to construction in the UAE and around the world depend on EGA to provide the metal they need for products and infrastructure that make modern life possible. EGA’s operations run around the clock, every single day of the year.

All the same, EGA aims to foster a healthy work-life balance, so that employees have the time and energy to devote to both their jobs and their families.

An ever-increasing number of these employees are women – 17 percent of all supervisory staff at EGA are female. Women make up the majority of graduates in many science, technology engineering and mathematics fields at UAE universities. Since the formation of the UAE in 1971, the nation’s leaders have strongly advocated women taking their full role in the economy and society.

As a mother of three children and one of the most senior women at EGA, Najeeba Al Jabri, Vice President Technical, can attest that striking a healthy work-life balance is not always easy. But, she says, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that more flexible working is possible in some roles: “I’m a chemical engineer and, before the pandemic, no one would have imagined I could have worked from home. But then, as soon as the schools closed, we all had to adjust – men and women - so that we could both do our jobs and be with our children. EGA made it possible by adopting flexible hours and having the right tools to do it successfully.”

Restrictions and measures imposed to prevent the spread of the virus led companies worldwide to re-assess the traditional work week and restructure it to allow for more flexibility and balance—especially for parents.

If this change lasts, Al Jabri believes, companies have the potential to unlock a huge, untapped talent pool. “There are a lot of educated, talented people – especially mothers - in the UAE who do not have access to the right opportunities because they are constrained by traditional office hours,” she explains. “More flexible work schedules will unlock many opportunities.”

Making a name

If Al Jabri sounds passionate about empowering more women to succeed in the UAE job market, it is because she loves her work. While studying chemical and petroleum engineering at university in the UAE, she did her work placement at what was then Dubai Aluminium (DUBAL) in Jebel Ali, where she says she “immediately fell in love” with the smelting process. “It was pure chemical engineering, which was exactly what I’d studied.”

Thanks to her high grades, she was offered the chance to stay in academia, but her mind was made up. “I was passionate and wanted to work in this field, so I made the choice to go with DUBAL.”

At DUBAL, Al Jabri started in the technology development department -as a Project Engineer, working on designing new reduction cells and solving complex technical challenges. Then in 2004 she was transferred to Potline 9, becoming the first woman to work as an Operations Engineer in the Middle East aluminium industry.

“Working in Operations means, you are on call 24 hours a day, with a lot of responsibility to the shop floor,” she explains. “You need to be able to manage a team under pressure, maintain the equipment and deal with emergencies—it’s very hands on.”

Upon joining the Operations team, she quickly became involved in the start-up of Potline 9, which Al Jabri remembers as “one of the quickest and smoothest operations we had ever done.” In fact, the start-up was so successful that, as soon as it was completed in 2006, she was promoted to Operations Manager to oversee 50 per cent of DUBAL’s production. 

However, according to Al Jabri, her biggest challenge and career-defining moment came in 2008, following an incident that required over one-third of the potlines to be restarted.

The restart was supposed to take six months but, under her leadership, it was completed in three.

Completing such a massive project in half the time expected required Al Jabri and her team to “work literally 24 hours a day,” she says. “I had a sleeping bag in my office and didn't leave the premises once for the first two weeks. All I was focused on was restarting that first pot. I didn't really have any other thoughts other than to get the plant back on track.”

This level of commitment was “my choice”, Al Jabri insists. “My bosses would not force us to do this, but I wanted to play my part. They put a lot of trust in me and were very proud when we restarted. They could see the success over the days and weeks”.

Finding a balance

In 2010, having established a name for herself in the industry, Al Jabri got married and decided to take a different path. “I wanted to have a family, so I decided to go into oil and gas because I thought it might be less demanding. But then I was posted to Turkmenistan as a field engineer, so it wasn’t any easier!”

This move would not only require her to move away from home, but to do so while pregnant and, through it all, she realised, “I could still get the job done.”

This realisation inspired an even greater confidence in Al Jabri who, in 2013, was asked to come back to EGA to oversee the start-up of Potline 3—then the longest in the world—at the company’s Al Taweelah site in Abu Dhabi.

Al Jabri jumped at the opportunity and re-joined EGA as a senior manager. “It was incredibly demanding but also an amazing story. I finished the job three months ahead of schedule, beating all my KPIs.”

Of course, this work involved compromises “You have to give it your all but, at the time, my daughter was two years old, so I left her with my Mom. That way, I could focus 100 percent on the work and stay the whole time at the site. I would send my daughter videos so she could see my work, and it made her really interested in what I did. It was really nice to have that engagement and support from my whole family.”

Her husband was an especially big help. “We met at EGA, so he understood the work and gave me a lot of support. He would help keep me focused.”

Al Jabri now has three children, all under the age of ten. Like many other working parents, she fights to balance the time she devotes to her job and to her family. “I target the ‘value time’ where I can be there for them,” she says. “With my oldest, we will go to the cinema once a week, or now we will watch a film at home together. We’ll talk and I find out what she needs from me. With my youngest, I always make sure I am there for story time at night, since I don’t see her in the morning as I always get to the office by 6.30am.”

She needs to be at work early to oversee her team’s daily 7am meeting, where the nightshift team gives her all the updates necessary to begin and plan her day. “I’m responsible for all technical matters related to Midstream, so,” she explains, “I need to know about any abnormalities and see what needs my focus.”

Al Jabri credits her incredible efficiency to the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” or “Industry 4.0,” which has introduced new technologies and ways of working that rely heavily on interconnectivity, automation, machine learning and real-time data.

“I’m increasingly relying on AI solutions and machine learning to identify potential problems before they happen,” she says. “These tools are very helpful to our industry; they make me and the company more efficient and eliminate a lot of administrative work. This is important as at the end of the day I am not so exhausted by routine jobs. I can add a lot of value and still be home by 4pm after my early start.” 

Al Jabri’s success, both at work and at home, is also an inspiration to other women—specifically, to the 23 women who work as engineers in her department, and who have come to view her as an example. Their admiration “means a lot and makes me want to continue to do better so that they will be proud of me.”

To both women and men, Al Jabri hopes to serve as an example of what can be achieved when you work hard and never settle for less than your best. “We [women] don’t want to be treated as an exception,” she insists. “We want to prove ourselves worthy of the job, and that's why I love working here. EGA has the same rules for everyone; we don't get an easy time. It’s competitive and success is based on who does a great job, and that’s what makes us proud when we do achieve.” 

Looking ahead to the future, she thinks Industry 4.0 will not only continue to unlock opportunities for talented women, but also for the next generation of increasingly global, tech-savvy workers. “We can’t stay the same; we need to keep innovating and by doing so we will attract the country’s best minds.” 

To help prepare for and contribute to this future, Al Jabri has enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Universities of Auckland and New South Wales to study how big data and AI can improve the operations of smelters. And, in the meantime, she continues to be inspired by her own role models, such as the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem Al Hashimi, whose recent high-level UN video conference was interrupted by her young son, prompting good-humoured laughter from fellow world leaders.

To see such clear acceptance of working motherhood at the highest levels of the international community “reminded me that we [women and mothers] are getting to live our dream,” Al Jabri says. “We look to great people in the UAE, including here at EGA, to lead us forward and make our company a great place to work—for anyone with talent.”