What Drives You?

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A few years ago Maryam Al Saffar stood in front of her father to convince him to let her drive a car. A protective dad and a former air force pilot, he was hesitant to permit women in his family to drive an automobile. Maryam not only won her first battle, she went on to win several more. She not only bought and drove her car, she also went on to become Dubai’s first woman Metro and Tram driver. Manju Ramanan speaks to the spunky Maryam Al Saffar, Deputy Operations Manager for Dubai Trams

It is a piercing hot afternoon and I meet Maryam Al Saffar at the Dubai Tram station head office at Al Sufouh. Fun, feisty and cheerful, she recounts how, at one point of time her father dissuaded her from driving a car. “Right after college, I worked in the banking sector. My father who, at that time was averse to women working outside had reservations about my driving. He would pick me and drop me to work. He was also strict that I shouldn’t work night shifts. In fact I had declined a job offer at the airport for the same reasons. But I just had to drive,” says Maryam who is the oldest of all her siblings. She feels that she cleared the path for the rest of her siblings – they are a total of four brothers and two sisters. “Today so many women drive to work and back. It wasn’t very hard for me once I got the car. Now my sisters have it easy. I did all the fighting. They didn’t have to fight the battles”.

Maryam’s father has been an air force pilot and always supportive of girls being educated. He however had reservations about them working in offices, keeping late hours and driving. “In fact my aunt, his own sister wasn’t allowed to drive and my mother who had a driving license never drove a car and eventually gave up because of lack of practice. But children get their way,” adds Maryam. So, a determined Maryam stood in front of her father one day and told him that she had bought her own car. “I expected him to be angry. But he merely asked me which car I bought? When I said it was a Corolla, he was happy.He told me that he was glad that I didn’t choose a luxury car,” she laughs.

Maryam worked till 2007 in the banking sector as a relationship manager before her move to RTA. She first started her work in the marketing department and then moved to the training department. I had trained and recruited 150 Emiratis for the Dubai Metro. “When I joined the Operations department, I was in my 2nd year of service with RTA,” she says. When she was given an option of either being on the train or the stations, she chose the train. “I wanted to be in a space no one had been before. During the training schedule we went to the UK to be trained and when I came back, I started at the grassroots.” To be a Train crew supervisor, you had to learn everything from the start. “First I learnt everything that was technical and then it was all on ground – I worked with the train attendants, customer service, checking Ids for over six months. Then I had to learn to drive the Metro especially if it stopped between two stations and to drive it manually to the workshop and back. My first route was between the Rashidiya train depot to the Rashidiya Metro station. It was an exhilarating experience,” she recounts.

Ask her how different is it to drive a train versus driving a tram and she feels that the Dubai Metro is easier to navigate as compared to the Dubai Tram because the Dubai Metro has automated systems while the tram is largely manual. “The Dubai Tram was introduced in 11/11/2015. When I drove the tram I could sense the difference immediately. The control of the Metro is in the operational centre while the Dubai Tram is all manual. The Tram driver needs to know everything about the tram including what to do if the tram stops, to battery recharge to restart till the maintenance team arrives. During the training period we practiced with sand bags on the Dubai Tram instead of people. But it is very difference to drive it with people because people move. Also there are people and traffic that we have to negotiate which is not the case with the Dubai Metro. Here, we have to be very careful,” she adds.

What is her role in Dubai Tram?
“In Dubai Metro I was Operations Supervisor- training staff, monitoring them disciplinarily etc., here I handle over 32 drivers and 36 customer service executives and supervisors personnel, shift controllers of the Dubai tram. It is a hands – on job and you have to take decisions when you are the manager.”

Maryam met her husband while he was training with the Dubai Tram. “We got married last year. He works with me but is in the Police department,” she says. Once in a while she and her husband take a ride in the Dubai Tram. “We use the tram when we have to go to the JBR area,” she says.

Ask her how her father reacts to her success?
“He is very proud of me. In fact whenever there is an interview of mine aired on television, he messages all his friends and family to watch it. He is someone who will never praise me in front of me but will applaud me behind my back. He is very strict. His army background makes him so.” And does she imbibe any of his qualities. “Yes I do. Like him, I hardly praise people in front of them though I praise them in front of friends and family when they are not there,” she adds.

And has he taken a ride on the Metro?
“When I was with the Dubai Metro, he would give him friends the Metro card and ask them to go travel by the Metro. That was his way of showing appreciation to me. He lives in Deira, the old side of Dubai, and prefers to stay there and doesn’t come here, to modern Dubai. So the Metro is useful to him.”

What is her plan for the tram?
“I am starting my Master’s degree course in Railways in September in the UK. I have to register for the course there and a lot of it is online. The Dubai Tram is an outcome of the visionary leaders of Dubai and the Phase 1 has been successful. Phase 2 will connect Mall of the Emirates to the Jumeirah beach side. It will extend the track by 4km and link the tram network with Mall of the Emirates. There is also a third phase of Dubai Tram planned. The Tram links up with the Dubai Metro and also the Palm Monorail. I am very excited about it,” she adds.

A proud Emirati, Maryam is very happy that the United Arab Emirates provides women like her a chance to excel. “The Dubai metro has changed the lives of people in Dubai. There area people from the GCC countries that are using the tram regularly. Public transport in a city like Dubai is of prime importance both to the residents and to the tourists. Both the Dubai Metro and the Dubai Tram that way are the lifelines of the city. I am glad to be a pioneering part of both systems,” she adds.