When it comes to spreading awareness about the environment, it’s certainly a full-time job that requires passion.
Determined to make an impact and educate the next generation, director general of Emirates Nature-WWF Laila Abdullatif’s passion started at a young age, and now the Emirati hopes to inspire tomorrow’s leaders to take action for the future of our planet
Lve to work or work to live? It’s an age-old question.
When it comes to her job, director general of Emirates Nature-WWF oozes zealousness, and has clearly been destined to shine in her field of work from a young age.
“As a child, I always had a passion for exploration and the natural world; I think I knew very early on that I didn’t want to have the standard office-based job,” the Emirati begins. “I studied environmental sciences as my degree, before heading to Emirates Nature as an intern, which was almost 11 years ago. But it all really started for me when I dived with sharks when I was around 11 years old.
“I’ve always been mesmerised by sharks – they’re certainly one of the things that sparked my love for nature. And that has continued until this day. Why? They’re very much misunderstood, and they’ve learnt to adapt and survive – they are very powerful.”
During her intern days, Laila began to flourish: “I grew professionally as I began to explore a number of different roles in conservation, biodiversity and climate change. This helped me delve into the specific expertise that an NGO (non-governmental organisation) eventually operates in, including fundraising and communications. Over the years, I have developed my knowledge and skills, bringing me to where I am today.”
Learning on the job is something many mothers can relate to as well. And Laila, a mother herself, certainly knows the importance of her position as a leader both at work and at home: “The lines certainly blur a little when it comes to being a mum and also the DG of Emirates Nature-WWF,” Laila notes. “It’s extremely important to have a balance – especially in a leadership role – between family life and work life.
“I’m extremely passionate about my job, so I act as a role model to my two children and have to educate them on our environment and my position in protecting it. I even say to them, ‘Sorry, but mum can’t always pick you up from school – I’m busy saving the planet!’ They also know it’s not just their mum’s responsibility, it’s theirs too – it’s everybody’s job.”
As she continues to pave the way for future generations, Laila knows that she can’t lose sight of her initial goal: “I have always wanted to make an impact. I wanted to ensure that first and foremost I was giving back to my country, just like our great leaders have done; I wanted to make sure I made an impact, too. But sometimes it’s difficult for people to see the link between the environment and humanity – that’s also what drove me to this particular field of work: I want to raise awareness on this link because at the end of the day, this is what is required for our survival.”
That road to making significant change has no doubt been a bumpy ride. But it’s these challenges that Laila says make her feel grateful to be in her position: “As DG, of course there are the standard responsibilities of anyone in this position. People here know I operate an open-door policy so everyone feels comfortable as a team to cross-pollinate ideas, to motivate each other, challenge each other and grow. There are, of course, challenges, as there are with every job. Having such a passionate and dynamic team sets me the challenge of ensuring that the resources and finances are there to deliver these ambitious plans to our high quality standards. And I can say we really are achieving great impacts on the ground.
“I’m lucky that I get to be out in the field – it really is a luxury! Myself and the team get to tag marine turtles and track their migration, even hike in the Hudra Mountains and deploy camera traps to really discover what’s there. This is really an exciting part of the job for me.”
Thankfully, Laila isn’t alone in her fight for the environment’s future. There has been a significant change in momentum over the last few years, especially with topics such as climate change being given more focus.
“When you have a buy-in like this at the very top, you’ll see these changes much faster,” Laila says. “In any case, we’re working in a country like the UAE where it’s possible to see changes in your lifetime.
“We’ve gone through a revision of our strategic conservation plan and have decided to deliver a new brand, with an adapted focus of work. We wanted to ensure that there is greater integration within the community, greater integration with individuals, with the youth.
“That said, along with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi and International Fund for Houbara Conservation, we created a programme called Connect With Nature where a website, mobile app and a series of outreach events – which we ensure are outdoors – help grow a passion for nature, especially among the youth of our communities.”
So what does the future hold? Are children really the key to creating lasting change?
“We need to start them at an early age so this becomes a habit for them – they are the decision makers of the future. So now, we need to create experiences. We need to create memories in our natural environment and we do that by connecting with it. This is where the experiences grow and these people become our ambassadors, helping us create an even greater impact, especially on social media – we live in a digital world after all.”
From speaking with this ardent nature lover, she really does live to work. It’s ingrained in her and Laila’s focus is undeterred. Why? “I want to help people,” she concludes. “I want to help future generations survive. And I do that by preserving the resources and habitats that we depend on. We should always be asking ourselves – in life and at work – ‘How am I helping people?’ ‘How am I making a difference?’ That’s how I strive to make change.”