Living and Working in the Gulf States - Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia
Opportunities in the Gulf
I enjoy working in the Middle East, having serviced contracts and projects in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Most of the work here is in Energy and Construction but there are jobs and contracts in other fields too, as the Gulf States mature and diversify. (My own field is Broadcast Engineering).
Living and working abroad is not for everyone, but if you have a touch of the pioneering spirit and a skill to offer, you could do worse than spend a few months or years in the Middle East, a part of the World that is riding out the Global recession better than most.
Satellite View of the Gulf States
Where are the Gulf States?
The Gulf States are the eight countries and territories that surround the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf - Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Except for Iran and Iraq, all are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC, a political and economic union.
The United Arab Emirates, or UAE, is one country made up of seven small hereditary emirates or kingdoms: Abu Dhabi (the capital), Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah and Umm al Quwain. Because of the different characters and foreign allegiances of the ruling families, the individual emirates are quite distinct societies. Sharjah, for example, is a strictly traditional Islamic state quite unlike its Westernised neighbour, Dubai. There are no land border controls within the Emirates, so visitors (and nationals) can move freely between them.
Europeans or Americans would have to have a very good reason to choose Iran or Iraq at present, but all of the other Gulf States are well worth considering if you have a sense of adventure and fancy a change of scene.
Update, February 2012:
The Arab Spring popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt triggered a wave of protest movements throughout the region. In Bahrain, heavy handed policing of protests caused a number of deaths and injuries and the situation is still not resolved, though an uneasy calm has been restored. There are Sunni/Shia tensions in this tiny kingdom but inequality and corruption were at least as much to blame. For the ex-pat communities, it is more or less business as usual, but check latest information before travelling here.
The UAE, Qatar and Kuwait generally look after their nationals fairly well, so it is unlikely that the unrest will spread to these territories. However, Iran and Saudi are powerful and unpredictable, so things can change quickly. Again, always check before travelling.
July 2013: The above still applies. Also, the war in Syria has increased the likelihood of terrorist activity throughout the region, though to date UAE and Qatar remain safe.
Update, January 2018
Qatar has been illegally blockaded by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt since June 2017. This has affected businesses, both in Qatar and in the blockading countries, and has impinged on local families and education. For the ex-pat worker or contractor in Qatar, little has changed and life goes on much as normal. However, travel between Qatar and their former neighbours has become difficult and expensive. There are no more direct flights. To travel from Doha to Dubai, for example, involves a layover in a neutral country, Oman or Kuwait, and a second flight. This makes a weekend trip barely worth the effort and expense.
And the differences?
Mostly the differences are in degree. Though all are Islamic, Dubai & Abu Dhabi (both in the United Arab Emirates), Bahrain and Oman are relatively open and tolerant societies, (but don't expect them to be like Sweden, OK?) while Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are much stricter in their adherence to Sharia law and therefore generally less comfortable for the expatriate communities. Having said that, in Saudi it's normal for Western ex-pats to live in compounds within which there are certain freedoms. Personally I don't like compounds, but each to their own.
What do the Gulf States have in common?
They are all Arab countries*, with Arabic as the national language, though a lot of business is conducted in English. They are all Islamic (Muslim) countries. They have more than their fair share of desert, with searing heat in summer and very little rainfall. Mostly they are rich, from oil and gas reserves, though this wealth is not evenly distributed. And all are engaged in a huge expansion programme with burgeoning construction of roads, airports, resorts, residential and hotel properties, banking, commercial and retail centres and all the 'must haves' of consumerist modernity.
*(except Iran, which is Persian, not Arab, with Farsi the national language).
What's good about working in the Gulf?
There are many opportunities to work on big projects, and not just in oil, gas and construction. Most disciplines are in demand here, and are often very well paid. Earnings can be tax free, though this may depend on your home country's policy on overseas income and whether you are paid locally or into a bank back home.
The experience of working closely with people from all over the world is of inestimable personal value if you approach it with an open mind. You will not like everything you see, but you can learn a great deal about your place in the world. In particular, you learn that your own country doesn't have all the answers.
On a more basic level, the streets are generally safer than most Western cities, with low personal crime rates. Hospitality, friendliness and politeness are valued and widely practised, both as a religious duty and as a way of life.
Though the prevailing culture is Arab and Islamic (which are not one and the same, by the way) there is also great diversity owing to the various immigrant communities and this is reflected in the enormous range of small shops and restaurants waiting for you if you just venture outside the glitzy malls and hotels and explore the streets.
Understanding the 'package'
In the Gulf region, a job comes with a 'package', not a simple wage deal. The package comprises remuneration and any or all of: accommodation, transport, health insurance, marriage allowance, children's education, leave entitlement, home visits and more. The package on offer also depends on the applicant's home country. Employers offer what they have to to fill the vacancies. A Filipino or Sri Lankan will be offered less than a European for the same work, even if identically qualified. It may not be fair, but with no workers' representation it's not about to change. Always check the full package before signing up.
What are the risks?
If you take a contract with a major European or American company, (there are plenty in the Gulf), you can't come to much harm, provided you stay on the right side of the law. More about that later. If you choose to work directly to a local employer, the rewards can be higher, but you should be aware of a few things and take appropriate care:
- Your employer is also your sponsor. You cannot work for anyone else if he does not release you.
- You cannot leave the country without an exit visa issued by your employer/sponsor. (This varies from country to country).
- There is a culture of late or withheld payment, even among respected companies.
You do not have 'normal' employee's rights. Always research carefully before taking any contract in this part of the world. Abuse of 3rd World immigrant labour forces is all too common. Specialists and professionals are generally treated better, but with notable exceptions.
Driving - the biggest risk
The standard of driving across the region is very low. Serious accidents and fatalities are an every day occurrence. It is rare to drive for even half an hour without seeing several dangerously irresponsible road safety violations, often committed by young guys in grossly overpowered 4x4's. Upturned Land Cruisers and flattened Corollas are just part of the landscape. Take care!
Staying out of trouble
Throughout the Middle East, the police tend to lock you up first and worry about it later, which could mean when somebody outside realises you're missing and makes enquiries. The best advice is to stay out of their notice. In particular:
- Don't get into fights. Being in the right is no defence.
- Don't get into debt. Imprisonment for debt is common.
- Drinking in hotel bars is legal, but appearing drunk on the street is an offence.
- There is zero tolerance of drink driving. One drink is over the limit.
- Any accident is by definition your fault if you've had any alcohol at all.
- Drug offenses are taken extremely seriously.
- Homosexual activity is a criminal offence and severely dealt with.
- Unmarried cohabitation is illegal, though sometimes tolerated.
- Avoid indiscreet behaviour in public with a member of the opposite sex.
The interpretation of this last one varies enormously from country to country and could (and very likely will) be the subject of a hub of its own. Do also bear in mind that even more care should be taken during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
Thank you for reading.
Comments are welcome, but...
Please note that this article is about what it is like to live and work in the Gulf States. I can talk about that from fifteen years experience here. What I can't do is give specific details on how to obtain visas and other immigration technicalities. Every case is different. Besides which, it doesn't matter what I say, if the authorities say something different. By definition, they are right!