The End of the Road for the GCC Expat?

Adam Webb, Managing Director

What does the future entail for expats in the Middle East?

As you can imagine, I speak to a lot of expats in the Middle East region. I myself focus on the Real Estate Development and Architecture industries. In these industries there is a diverse mix of expats from all over the world based in the region, collaborating to design and bring to life some of the most exciting projects in the World. 

With the uncertainty of the economies of the GCC at the present time, people are wondering, “Is the bubble about to burst?”

The answer is not as cut and dry as one might think; although there are plenty of people who are predicting the apocalypse of the expat (normally a retired or out of work Oil and Gas engineer found in a corner of Mcgettigans), it is important to segment the diversity of people that occupy the Middle East. On top of that, you have to look at the different countries in the GCC as the predicament really does differ from Saudi to Qatar to the UAE. You cannot tar all expats with one brush.

Without listing every nationality currently residing in the GCC (I’m sure every country in the world is represented in some form or another), expats can broadly be split into: Western (English speaking), Regional (predominantly Arabic speaking and fluent in English) and Asian.

You have all seen the ‘before and after’ picture of Dubai showcasing how far the Emirate has come and there are countless more examples which are similar for their drastic transformations. Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain etc. They are all going through their own transformations looking to emulate and better what Dubai has created and challenge them in becoming a hospitality and business powerhouse in the GCC.

This in itself could provide the answer in how and where the longevity of the expat life will next come from. Will the modern day expat take on the same risk and challenges that the former professionals of 20 years ago did by moving to a baron desert with a bucket load of potential and one watering hole after tasting the luxuries and comforts that Dubai has to offer? Again this is an individual question where the answer will change from person to person and depend on a multitude of factors, but there will still be opportunities aplenty for those looking to step outside their comfort zone.

The Western expat 20 years ago could name their price. The region lacked expertise in a number of industries and they did a great job in making the GCC what it is today. Fast-forward 20 years and the talent in the region is diverse, competitive and capable. In some cases, regional talent is a lot more attractive due to their language skills and cultural familiarity and has become essential for a lot of employers in the region. 

Of course, there are some industries that benefit from Western expertise, most notably the Banking and the booming Fintech/E-commerce industries, but how long will it be before the regional talent, catch up, just like they have in other industries such as Development, IT and HR – 5-10 years, but don't be surprised if it is even sooner!

Regional talent from countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain and other regional powerhouses will continue to play a strong role in the GCC economy and workforce, these are the candidates that are mainly competing with Western expats for these roles and are more often than not, winning the contest. However, with companies reacting to the financial forecast and outlook and tightening their purse strings, candidates risk pricing themselves out the market and longing for days of old. There is no time for nostalgia in this fast moving region, you will simply be left behind or glossed over.

The Asian workforce and their tireless work is what the GCC is built upon. The backbone some may say, not occupying the most glamorous roles on the whole, but the important ones that are critical for most projects success. There is no shortage of talent in sub-continent countries such as India and Pakistan, however, to climb that ladder and eventually lead teams and companies, their management skills and language skills will no doubt have to match their talent.

A Harvard Business review shared the stat that in the Fortune 500, a staggering 30% of CEO’s heralded from Indian shores. For a country that gets a lot of bad press, this stat shows that given the right opportunities, Indian business leaders can mix it with anyone else in the heady heights of the C-Suite. The GCC is in a prime position both economically and geographically to build upon Asian success (most notably in the USA and UK). This is very promising and something that Asian business leaders can strive towards and more importantly realise.

So has the Expat Bubble burst?

For those that want to cash in the last 5 years of their working life before retiring, most probably yes. The opportunities for industry experts for one last payday are generally gone as there isn’t as much of a shortage of talent as there was 20 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, those opportunities ARE still available, but perhaps in not the most glamorous locations such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi or on the salary you might expect. A close friend gave up his Director role in a UAE based Oil and Gas Company after hefty cutbacks and took a role with the same company in Mexico. Would you be willing to make the same move for your career?

Recruitment for Expats in the GCC will be as selective as it is anywhere else in the world. Competition is fierce and as one of the most desirable places to relocate due to tax breaks, only the candidates who offer their employer real value will reap the rewards.

The job market has finally caught up; it is in direct correlation with the health of industry in the region and it is no longer a free for all for those longing for a decent paycheck, Thursday sundowners on a warm February night and a Friday brunch. The landscape has changed and everyone else will have to adapt with it. (including me!)

If you are a candidate that can offer value to an employer or an employer looking to find the ideal candidate, then we at Fulton Garrick are perfectly suited to help you in a consultative, precise and focused manner across the Development, Architecture, Fintech, FMCG and Legal sectors.

Thanks for taking the time out of your day to read this article and please do share your insights and thoughts. All opinions are welcome and readily received.