Reasons For, and Against, Working in the MidEast
Some time ago, I wrote an article for the employment section of a leading UK technology magazine. It was about reasons, based on my experience, for working in the Middle East. It was based on another piece I wrote for the Career Advantage website.
I’m a bit sniffy about blogs that churn out lists – Twenty Reasons Why You Should Have Your Chihuahua Neutered, and the like. But in this case I thought it was the right format, and everybody else seems to like lists, so that’s how I wrote it.
I looked at the piece again the other day. I wanted to see if I would change any of my thoughts in the light of all that has happened in the Middle East over recent months. I found that no, I wouldn’t. The Middle East was and continues to be – for me – a great place to live and work.
But it’s not for everyone. How you find the experience – at least for a Western expatriate like me – depends on you. Your character, your expectations, your attitude towards people, society, faith, politics and business.
Many expatriates tend to form physical and mental bubbles around themselves. They look to shut out whatever they find distasteful, and concentrate on the task of making money. They will create small societies, mainly composed of like-minded people. As long as they feel safe and relatively fulfilled, they will consider that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and they will stay for as long as it suits them.
With the coming of the Arab Spring, there will be many people who might have considered moving to the Middle East, but who may feel rather spooked about the prospect now. Especially so if they read the various foreign ministry advisory notices from countries like the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
So I thought I would re-publish my original Ten Reasons for Working in the Middle East, and write another list that gives ten reasons why the Middle East might not be the right place for a Westerner – or anyone else for that matter – to live and work.
Here’s what I wrote about eighteen months ago:
Ten Reasons for Working in the Middle East
It’s been nearly thirty years since I first set foot in the Middle East. Looking back, I can say that getting on that plane to start the two-year contract I first signed up for was one of the best decisions of my life.
So for anyone contemplating taking the same step, let me share ten reasons based on personal experience as to why a move to the Middle East is potentially a good move at any stage of a career
Financial: This is the obvious one, of course. I moved to Saudi Arabia in my late 20’s on a contract that ended up lasting for nearly a decade. The money I earned enabled me to start a business with a partner in which, after many evolutions, peregrinations and a few sales on the way, I’m still involved today. Saudi Arabia gave me the means to break free of a lifetime working for others, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
Cultural experience: In my time in the Middle East I have worked with nationals of at least thirty countries. I have learned not only from the native cultures of the Middle East, but from everybody I have worked with – Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Bhuddists, Zoroastrians and Taoists. I have learned to look beyond the caricatures through which the western media often presents the religion and cultures of the region, by talking to people, socialising with them and hearing their stories. I feel enriched beyond wealth by the experience.
Jumping off point: The Middle East is a perfect jumping off point for parts of the world where one might not ordinarily visit. This is perhaps less relevant today than it was 30 years ago, when flights were more expensive. But places like the Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, the Oman, Syria and Egypt from here are potential long weekends. Further afield, destinations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand become a doable seven hours flying, as opposed to a tedious 12 hours plus from the US and Europe.
Friendships: I have friends whom I met here that I have stayed in touch with for 30 years. Living and working in the Middle East creates a common bond through shared experience. It’s true that many relationships are superficial and don’t go the distance. But I have been lucky enough to meet people far and more talented and wiser than me, and they have become an enduring part of my life. This applies particularly to Arab nationals – trust and respect are not always easy to come by, but once won can lead to a friendship for life.
Professional Network: It never hurts to create a network of relationships in one of the world’s economic powerhouses. If you are involved in an international business, your work will not always touch on the Middle East, but the region will always be there as a factor. Oil and gas, regional politics, sovereign wealth funds – all have a bearing on every business in the world. It’s good to have people you can talk to in the region.
Exploration: If you have a yen for exploration beyond the usual tourist traps, the Middle East has much to offer. Roman, Greek and Byzantine ruins in the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Meteor craters, vast deserts and spectacular Nabatean tombs in Saudi Arabia. Tropical oases in the Oman. Spectacular diving in the Red Sea. And then, of course, Egypt. I have only scratched the surface.
Making a difference: I’m not sure if this is uppermost in the minds of many people coming to the Middle East, but suffice it to say that in many professional areas there is an opportunity to make a real difference, directly or indirectly, to people’s lives. In the 80’s I worked in civil aviation. The region didn’t have a great track record in terms of safety, and many areas were without airports. Pretty basic standards of air traffic control applied. In helping to develop the region’s infrastructure, I always felt that what I was doing was worthwhile, even if you could say after the fact that I indirectly contributed to the carbon emissions that so concern us today.
Upping your game: The phrase “taking your career to the next level” is the king of clichés. But for me it actually worked out that way. I found that in my time in the Middle East I ended up with far more responsibility than I would have had in a comparable organisation at home. I was stretched, challenged and occasionally, frayed! The skills I can directly attribute to my time in the region include working with multi-national, multinational workforces, patience, toleration, communications and political acuity. They have all served me well in my subsequent career.
International track record: Being able to cite a “difficult” region on their curriculum vitae is bound to be of benefit to a career. If you’re British and have spent three years in Germany that of course is valuable experience. But you are still working in the European Union, in an environment where best practice is roughly similar and recognisable. I suggest that experience of the Middle East, with its different cultural, social, legal and commercial norms, is a far more valuable badge of experience, matched only by the Far East. Which leads me neatly to the final reason.
Gateway to the East: The days when Bahrain and the Emirates looked primarily to Britain as a dominant trading partner, and Saudi Arabia likewise to the United States, are gone. Whether or not we are in the Eastern Century, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Malaysia to name but five countries, are playing a major role in the economy and business community of the region. In the Middle East you will work with or compete against companies and executives from the Far East on a much wider scale than you might, say, in a senior role in the UK or the United States. Not only will you benefit from that experience, but you might find yourself making your next career move to the Far East because of what you learned in this region. On a personal level, my understanding of the Muslim world was very helpful when I came to set up a company in Malaysia, for example.
The Middle East is a diverse, challenging, infuriating and ultimately fascinating environment. It’s not for the squeamish or the fainthearted, as you will discover when you read on. But I don’t have a single regret about the time I’ve spent in the region. I’d do it all again.
Ten Reasons Not to Work in the Middle East
This might seem like a list of negatives. All of the reasons can be so for some. It depends on your attitude towards them, and what you’re used to at home. Also, some of the reasons I quote apply to a lesser or greater extent across the region. No one country is the same, which is why generalisations about “Arabs” and “Muslims” can be misleading and dangerous. Just keep that in mind.
Heat: This is the obvious one. There are some parts where the summer temperature can get above 50 degrees. Cities like Jeddah, Manama and Dubai can also be suffocatingly humid in the summer months. Others, like Riyadh, have a dry heat that can mummify you in short order. Yes, you will have air conditioning in your accommodation and your car. But for three or four months of the year, be prepared to confine your outdoor life to the evenings, when things are cooler.
Noise: If you come from Naples or Delhi, no problem – you will encounter nothing worse in the Middle East. But many cities in the region have horrendous traffic problems – Cairo for example. So be prepared for an endless serenade of honking horns and engine noise, especially at peak times. Also be aware that in some cities, construction doesn’t stop at weekends, so don’t be surprised to find your pleasant weekend evening on the balcony punctuated with banging, crashing and grinding from the nearby building site. Finally, there are the mosques. Minarets have loudspeakers, and if you live in an area where there are many mosques, expect to be treated to simultaneous prayer calls in surround-sound. Most people get used to the sound – and listening to good muezzin can be a musical as well as a spiritual experience. But if you’re a light sleeper, you will not be amused to be woken by the early call – from 4 am in the winter, a bit later in the summer.
Pollution: Almost every city in the world is polluted to some degree. But the traffic snarl-ups in many of the big Middle East cities can cause even hardy smokers like me to gasp like a fish out of water from time to time. Then there is the dust. Cities in the throes of construction booms can throw up all kinds of nasty stuff. And especially in the Gulf, you will encounter sandstorms that leave a thin suspension of dust in the atmosphere for days after the storm. So if you’re prone to asthma, as many locals are, factor this into your decision.
Bureaucracy: Many governments in the Middle East are massively overstaffed. There are a number of reasons for this. More recently because creating more government jobs is an easy was to address pressing unemployment problems. Traditionally, because many governments still adhere to practices handed down from the Ottoman Empire and – as a Brit, I hate to say it – the civil service created by the British Raj in India. So getting residence permits, driving licences and a host of other essential pieces of paper can be a long drawn out and painful process. Things are getting better. Many countries – especially Bahrain and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, have embraced e-government. But if you find it hard to tolerate bureaucracy in your home country, what you might encounter in the Middle East will do your blood pressure no favours.
Status: It’s always worth remembering that your status in the country you settle in is that of a guest. You will usually be treated with great courtesy and respect when you come to work in the Middle East – although less so the lower you are down the food chain. But if you wander around barking like a memsahib, you are liable to be reminded that you are a guest, and warned not to overstep the bounds of hospitality. So if you are the sort of person who is inclined to broadcast your discontent omnidirectionally, you may encounter problems. After all, it’s their country, not yours.
Rights: This is a tough one. In some countries, you will hear of – or even witness – abuses of human rights that might offend you. They may be casual acts by individuals, or they may be tacitly sanctioned from on high. Before you come to the Middle East, you should carefully consider your own moral position. You may determine that the greater good in what you have been hired to do transcends your personal reservations about the freedoms and rights accorded to citizens of the country. Equally, you might shut your eyes and determine not to care. By and large, your personal rights under the law will the same as those of citizens. But laws are not always evenly applied. And don’t expect to have a voice on national political issues, especially where you are tempted to side with one political faction or another. The recent painful experience of Bahrain shows why.
Equality: Another tough one. The issue of women’s rights, opportunities and place in society – especially in Saudi Arabia – has been so widely debated that I’m not going to discuss it here. Be aware that the Middle East is not a level playing field in many ways. There is discrimination on grounds of ethnicity – not just by locals against expatriates, by the way, but between locals themselves and between different ethnic groups within the expatriate communities – and faith. If you come to work in the wealthy economies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, you will need to accept that you are the hired hand, and that standards expected from you may differ from those applied to the local workforce. Not officially of course, but in reality. If you can’t cope with that without resentment, you might find things tough.
Customer Service: In the Middle East, this is very varied. Expect to be delighted one day, and pitched into a stupor of disbelief the next. My coping mechanism is to laugh, and write about my experiences. There are lots of reasons why customer service has its awful moments. Poor management, weak process, cultural inhibitions and lack of training. Most people want to please, but not necessarily in the way you want. But this is a worldwide issue, so I’d offer the same advice for many countries beyond the Middle East: if you’re inclined to get impatient to the point of apoplexy, stay at home. At least there you will understand the consequences of your rage.
Safety: No beating about the bush – there are unsafe areas across the region, both within cities and without. As there are in Rio, Moscow, London and Los Angeles. The important thing to consider is how you cope with fear of the unknown. In every city you can quickly find out where the unsafe areas are, and as you experience grows you can temper the advice with your own experience and common sense. But if you’re the sort of person who fears gremlins at every corner – like the guy I once drove from Riyadh to Damman, who was reluctant to get out of the car at a desert gas station in case someone was waiting to shoot him – then perhaps you should ask yourself if the Middle East is not a step too far.
Tolerance: As the people of the former Yugoslavia, Ireland and Rwanda know, attitudes that lurk in the back of people’s minds for decades and even centuries have a habit of bursting to the surface at moments of stress and discord. All eyes have been on the Middle East in recent times, and if you keep a close eye on the conventional and social media, you will easily find stories of intolerance and factionalism on a daily basis. But always remember that the people of Middle East have the same needs and desires as most of us – to live in safety and peace with our fellow human beings.
Yes, there are bad people doing and saying bad things. But most countries in this region are not war zones, and even though it can be hard to ignore some of what many Westerners see as the negative aspects of societies in this region, tolerance and respect for difference is a two-way process. If you go to a foreign country – on holiday perhaps – and find it hard to see the good in that country because of its many imperfections, perhaps that is an indicator that you will also struggle in the Middle East.
Just be aware that there are many good people in this region. If you reach out, you will find them. If you never try, you will not know what you are missing.
- Saudi Arabia: A Glimpse Through the Myths STEVE ROYSTON: Received wisdom portrays a backward, oppressive society, dominated by religious extremists and a monarchy whose main mission is self-preservation....
- Is Saudi Encouraging its own Brain Drain? STEVE ROYSTON: Could it be that the next wave of migration will come from the very class of people that Saudi Arabia sees as its future?...
- Building Entrepreneurship in the Middle East STEVE ROYSTON: Creating an entrepreneurial culture in a country, as Professor Daniel Isenberg pointed out, requires determination, and a lot of money...
- “Three Months at Most”: How Long Could Iran Close Straits of Hormuz? ROB L. WAGNER: As tensions increase all parties are beginning to make calculations regarding the effect of a possible conflict in the Arabian Gulf. ...
- The Reasons Why Saudi Arabia Will Not Fall ROB L. WAGNER: Western analysts are engaging in wishful thinking that Saudi Arabia is ripe for a revolution. The Kingdom is no Egypt or Tunisia. ...
- Middle East Blogs – Ten Sites CNN Missed STEVE ROYSTON: My only quibble about CNN’s list is that it picks up exclusively on Arab writers and – with the honourable exception of Mahmood the Bahraini Blogfather – most of the writers seem relatively...
Steve Royston runs the highly regarded 59 Steps, a blog with its foundations firmly in the Middle East, but its ideas unfettered by its geography. Steve lives in the Middle East, was born in the UK, and has personal and business ties to the USA, Ireland, Malaysia, France and more than one of the GCC countries. In 59steps, he reflects on business, politics, education and social issues in the Middle East and beyond.