Suaad Al Shamsi still remembers the times when as a child she would enjoy standing outside her home in Dubai to stare up at the sky. "I loved watching aircraft flying and would spend hours admiring the planes flying," she says. "I was truly addicted to aircraft."
Years later, the passion for aircrafts still runs high in the UAE’s first female aircraft engineer who specialised in landing gear and airframe systems – a fact more than evident the moment I request her for a photoshoot. "How about shooting at the site of the mini plane wreck in Al Aweer?" she says, enthusiastically.
On the scheduled day, Suaad is punctual to the minute. Dressed in reflective jacket and a hard hat, and not thinking twice that she might chip her manicured nails, the cheerful, pleasantly spoken engineer easily hauls a massive cast iron wrench prop and poses next to the abandoned wreck.
"Aviation is in my DNA," says Suaad, who holds an honorary doctorate in her pet subject, lovingly caressing the rusting propellers of the wreck.
She recalls the time she took her first air trip way back in 1990. "I could barely sit in my seat; I was busy looking around the plane, outside the windows… I asked probably a thousand questions to the cabin crew who were very kind and answered me patiently even allowing me to meet the pilot," she says. "My mother was so embarrassed and apologised to the crew on my behalf thinking that I was annoying them with my questions."
With every passing year, aviation became more than just a passion for young Suaad and when the time came for choosing a career, she did not have to think twice. "I loved fixing things and enjoyed mechanics, so decided to study aeronautical engineering," she says.
The first Emirati woman to study aeronautical engineering in the UK – "I am indebted to the UAE government for allowing me to pursue my higher studies there" – Suaad went on to earn an MBA with a double major in aviation management and aeronautical engineering. A woman who believes one learns something every day, she recently earned a DPA in aviation management as well. "I’m also a certified trainer and qualified to teach the new generation," she says, confidently.
With more than 16 years of experience in the industry she surely is.
"From young, I was keen to chart my own path," says the mother of two. "And I was lucky to have had some great mentors to guide me along."
Suaad, who lost her father when she was just a year old, counts her mother as her first teacher. "I still remember her words to me as I was preparing to fly to the UK for my higher studies. ‘If you can dream it, you can do it. Dream high and reach the sky, and show the world who you really are’, she told me. Those words have been my guiding principle pretty much all through life."
Her second mentor is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. "When I requested to him that I wanted to study aeronautical engineering but was not getting support because it was considered a man’s career, his answer was ‘there is nothing that’s impossible in the UAE’. He allowed me to pursue my studies and from that moment, I strive to make him and my family proud," she says.
Post her studies, and after training stints at Messier Bugatti, Honeywell, Kunz, Airbus and Boeing, Suaad flew back to the UAE to join Emirates Airline as the first female Emirati aircraft engineer in the UAE. Swiftly rising up the corporate ladder, she was put in charge of the landing gear (wheels and brakes) workshop, was then made technical engineer and promoted to aviation maintenance during her 10-year tenure there.
"Since the past six years I am an aviation advisor for the upcoming Abu Dhabi International Airport, which will be the third-biggest airport in the world," says the woman whose responsibilities include strategising and planning the new airport’s infrastructure, engaging with stakeholders, forecasting requirements and monitoring progress.
Not a routine job
"One of the best things I like about my job is that is not a routine one," says Suaad, a founder of the Middle East chapter of Women in Aviation. "There are different tasks to complete every day – new deadlines, fresh perspectives, new insights about the sector…"
Being the first female Emirati aircraft engineer is a matter of pride, but it also comes with a sense of responsibility "that I must preserve and contribute to the community and maintain the right image of the UAE female within and beyond the country".
Did she face any challenges working in a sector where not many women are usually seen?
"Actually, I faced challenges even when I applied to study this course," says the Ambassador for the International Union for Technical Education in UAE. Several colleges rejected her application saying that it was a typical male career unsuitable for women. "But I argued and fought determined to realise my dream. I wanted to show what women can do and become."
However, over the years there has been a sea change in those regressive attitudes, she says adding, today many sectors are open and encouraging to women.
Winner of several awards and honours including one for creative women in aviation engineering, Suaad has also represented UAE women at the Shanghai Expo 2010 and was a jury member in the Star of Science program, an edutainment TV initiative that empowers Arab innovators to develop technological solutions for their communities.
She calls herself lucky to have a loving and supportive family who are the tail winds powering her dreams. "My loving partner, my mother, sister, kids, and colleagues all play a part in keeping me happy, motivated and on track to realising my dream," she says.
A firm believer in giving back to the community, she has set up L2L (Learn to Live), a consultation company with an end-to-end program that encourages women to move forward in their career and supports the next generation of women who are keen to carve a path in the aviation industry.
Part of the package includes lessons, workshops and online lectures. L2L is also preparing to publish a book that will have plenty of tips on how to make the most of opportunities and a mark in one’s chosen career and in life.
"After much study, we have devised a program that lists a set of problems and solutions to them. Once the reader identifies the problem(s) they have, they will be able to find the solution as well. There will also be plenty of tips on how to work through the problems and how to stay positive," she says.
How do you stay positive, I ask Suaad, who is perpetually buzzing with a sense of optimism.
"Ah, yes, I am extremely optimistic," admits the aviation expert with a smile. "How do I do it? I remind myself of all the good things that I have in my life and thank God for them every day. I also try to push myself to do more each day and differently."
Changes are necessary, says the woman who has penned five novels (two of them have been translated into English and French) and a research document on the impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry. "If not we could become complacent and set in our ways."
She also believes in writing down positive quotes and posting them near her workplace and at home. "Being around positive people also helps. When we make people feel good, feel positive and happy, we become more optimistic in our life. I also believe in learning at least one new thing every day."
What then are the three most important life lessons she has learnt?
Suaad mulls over the question for a moment. "First, we need money but it is not the be all and end all in life. To achieve your dream, you need passion, encouragement and faith in yourself."
She also believes in not rushing through life. "Take things one step at a time and do them well.
"Third, don’t try to please everyone. It’s human nature to want and to belong, to be liked, respected and valued. But that should not happen at the expense of your integrity and happiness. Remember, other people cannot give you the validation you seek; that has to come from within you."
A role model
Looking back, Suaad believes that her greatest achievements to date are the academic distinctions she has earned and the rich experience of working in major aviation companies over the past 16 years. "I am also proud of being professional – a role model to a lot of people and successful as a working mother, plus making a mark in my writing endeavours."
Despite juggling many tasks and roles, the 30-something believes it is important to set aside some "me time". A major reason for the stress and pressures women today are experiencing is because they do not carve time out for themselves, she says.
"A woman needs to make herself a priority. A lot of women I’ve met often put themselves at the end of the priority list." She suggests scheduling time for themselves even if it’s just 30 minutes a day "to recharge their batteries". Use that time to read, sing, drink a cup of coffee and you will notice the difference in your life, she advises.
A dream she is working on is a book in Arabic on women in aviation. "It will be a real story of challenges and how to overcome them," she says.
Q&A with Suaad
What makes you sad?
Knowing that I can’t change the past.
Doing what others don’t and achieving what others won’t.
I can be too critical of myself.
Most treasured possession
Greatest achievement to date.
Being who I am, personally and professionally.
What keeps you awake at night?
Some new crazy idea that has popped into my mind.
Most important lesson life has taught you?
Nothing comes easy and to achieve success, you have to fight, struggle and cross a lot of hurdles.
When recruiting staff do you look for attitude or aptitude?
Both, plus personality and qualification.
3 qualities you wish your children learn?
Respect women and remember we are all born equal. Be self-reliant by acting independently and grow up with a strong inner compass to make sound judgments. Be confident, have patience and believe good things will come to those who wait.
Suaad’s 10 pieces of advice for women entrepreneurs
• Don’t be afraid to start
• Don’t be afraid to fail
• Get feedback
• Keep learning
• Ask for what you need
• Minimise being around negative people
• Network, network, network
• Be confident
• Get support
• Enjoy the journey