Foreign workers are flooding into the Gulf. The lifestyle is great, but cultural change is not happening as fast as some Westerners expect

The thought of sun-drenched beaches, sparkling sea and a tax-free working environment has lured Western Europeans to the Gulf since the oil boom of the early 1970s.

In those days - and for decades afterwards - even the oil companies considered the Gulf a hardship posting. Infrastructure was poor, bureaucracy was more complex than under the British "protectionist" system, and cultural differences were extensive.

But then came the Dubai phenomenon. Rather than just being a transit and refuelling facility for flights between Asia and Europe, Dubai suddenly became a destination.

Following the first Gulf War, the city-state hit the radar screen of the American tourism industry, with veterans happy to return to a welcoming country with lifestyle less tough than its former reputation. And where people take vacations, they aspire to live and work.

Higher Salaries

The more liberal countries have always been the most attractive to those who seek their fortune in overseas postings. The destination of choice was Bahrain in the 1970s, Sharjah in the 1980s and Dubai in the 1990s. Today, countries throughout the Gulf are reviewing their approach to labour laws and to the creation of a welcoming environment for workers - particularly those in the executive or professional category. Higher salaries can be found in some of the tougher places such as Saudi Arabia, Africa or the central Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Kurdistan.

The biggest demand is for jobs in the UAE, and in particular Dubai. The aviation industry offers great opportunity. Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, outlined his plan some years ago for a series of specialist industry clusters with incentives for allied businesses. It has worked for information technology (Internet City), communications (Media City) and education (Knowledge City) now aviation is in the spotlight as part of Logistics City, next to the largest airport in the world, under construction at Jebel Ali, between Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi.

"It is the ambition like this that makes the region so exciting," says Fiona Betts, managing director of Betts Recruitment, which specialises in executive search and recruitment for the aerospace industry. "In recent years we have seen a great expansion in demand for the business aviation sector both for flight crew and for support staff. But now we can see great requirements for the airport and other parts of the aviation market as more companies see opportunities in the Gulf."

Betts says that most of the people placed by her company stay with the jobs in the Gulf for more than the average two years expected in most contracts. "A lot of that is to do with the screening beforehand and making sure the candidate wants the job for the right reasons.

"Part of the challenge is getting the client company to be clear about what they want the candidate to do and what the job involves. Because of the rapid growth in the market, there are a lot of people who have no background in aviation. We spend time getting to understand what they need and helping them recognise the requirements for this industry," she says.

According to one recruitment consultant, a key concern can be boredom. Having filled the posts for flight attendants for the personal airliner of one of the Saudi royal family, he says that the expectation was that the crew would work around 120 hours a year - so they would be on standby for most of the time. "There is also a huge cultural difference," he says. "Life in Saudi Arabia - particularly for women - is very different to Dubai."

Glitz and Glamour

Even in Dubai, the sand is not always more golden. Recruits attracted to the glitz and the glamour they see on a short stopover will find life different once reality sets in. The city's mindset will take some years to catch up with its infrastructure. New arrivals, dazzled by the city's building boom, may expect too much from a city where attitudes have a long way to go to match their own.

Now required reading in all secondary schools, Sheikh Mohammed's vision is for Dubai to outdo the world's most powerful cities and lead the world in the race towards globalisation. He plans to empower UAE nationals to take over certain roles currently undertaken by non-nationals, so expatriates might be wise to consider Dubai a short-term taste of a different culture and mindset.

To reinforce this attitude, officials at the Ministry of Labour told the United Nations in mid-2006 that expatriates in the UAE should not be regarded as immigrants, but as temporary workers who return home after their contracts expire. Each of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is increasing demands on companies to employ nationals.

There are marked differences in the terms of employment. Engineer Ron Baker from the UK has worked in the Gulf for more than 10 years. "When you are with a firm like Emirates, you get all of the perks like free housing, medical insurance and the like. If you areemployed locally that is very different," he says. "The cost of living in Dubai has rocketed in recent years and the cost of an apartment has probably trebled in the past four years."

But there are upsides. Salary levels are similar to those in Western Europe, but with no income tax the net income is much greater.

"In the past, remuneration packages were split into various elements: basic salary, car provision or allowance, housing provision or allowance, medical cover, education for children and air tickets for home visits. Today employers tend just to pay a salary, which covers all these expenses," says Baker.

The cost of a typical apartment is around 100,000 dirhams (around $27,000/£13,000 a year) and a typical European elementary school costs $12,000 a year, doubling at secondary school level. The working week usually averages 48h, with Friday the holy day. Many Western companies take Saturdays as part of the weekend. In more traditional states, Thursday afternoon and Friday form the weekend. Once settled, Western workers find the lifestyle is good, with plenty of social activities.

Recruits should check their contracts of employment carefully and see that all promises made in any interview are included. The contracts are in Arabic. It is essential to have an independent English translation.

If you successfully complete the period of your contract you will be awarded an "indemnity", usually based on basic salary excluding bonuses. It is required by law to be paid to expatriate workers for being of service to the state (it is also known as "end of service benefits"). Indemnity usually amounts to 15 (in some cases 20) days' basic pay for each of the first three years and thereafter a month's salary per year of employment.


Source: Flight International