Ask expatriates why they moved to the Middle East and, along with the tax-free packages, year-round sunshine and great lifestyle, they will usually cite the chance to become part of an ambitious young company, with plenty of opportunities to develop their career as the business takes off.

Not for them sitting for years in the right-hand seat under a strict seniority system waiting to fill "dead men's shoes". The rapid growth of airlines and other businesses in the region has enabled pilots and other professionals from all over the world to kick-start and rapidly advance stagnant careers.

A year ago, Gulf employers simply could not recruit expatriates quickly enough to meet the needs of their expanding fleets and were loosening entry requirements and increasing incentives to attract candidates. But recent events have seen the region revert to much more of a buyer's market. Employers are being choosier and reward packages, if anything, tightened. Retention rates are growing and there is less poaching of each other's staff.

The global economic crisis, which began in earnest in the second half of last year, has taken its toll. Dubai, in particular - home to Emirates, much of the region's business aviation sector and what will be the world's biggest airport - has been particularly badly hit. Much more dependent on the finance, property and tourism sectors than its oil- and gas-rich neighbours, the economy of the world's fastest-growing city has been fragile in the past 12 months. Tens of thousands of foreign residents have left the country, property prices have collapsed, government-backed development projects are on hold, and the emirate has had to seek a $10 billion bail-out from the United Arab Emirates' central bank - effectively its neighbour Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi
 © Rex Features

The oil and gas economies have been hit, too. The fall in the fuel price may be good news for airlines at large, but for the likes of Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it has eaten into government revenues. Although prices are likely to stay well above the level at which these countries collect a profit, a drop in demand means much discretionary spending on infrastructure projects and technology may be on hold for a while.

So far, however, the aviation sector has escaped relatively unscathed. Most of the big airlines have simply slowed down recruitment and some investment, but the aspirations of these state-owned carriers are so longterm and large-scale that their planning looks to a 10-year horizon as much as the current financial period. In the business aviation sector, a number of start-ups, which back in 2007 were making lots of noise about their plans, have quietly been shelved and there have been some casualties, among them Saudi Arabia's Airbus A319 operator, Kayala.

"There has been a sea change over the past year, with a lot of business jet expansion, in particular, being put on hold," says Craig McPhie of UK-based recruitment consultancy Line Up Aviation, who specialises in the region. Demand for maintenance contract workers, in particular, has been scaled back. But McPhie insists it is "far from a doom and gloom market", with skilled professionals, especially experienced pilots and licensed engineers, "always in demand".

Phil Newton of fellow recruitment agency Touch Aviation agrees that although things are difficult at present, "those companies that will come out the other end stronger are the ones now looking at the skills they will need for the upturn". He adds: "While companies have got to make decisions based on cost, if you get rid of all your certified engineers and technicians, you will be in a difficult situation when it all recovers."


Source: Flight International