The Lure of Arabia
by Tim Skelton
The desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been firmly on the radar as far as expats are concerned, with lucrative tax-free jobs on offer in the oil industry in particular. But what’s happening right now, and has much changed since the Arab Spring shook the region in 2011?
It may be one of the most closed and restrictive societies in the world. Yet Saudi Arabia is also one of the richest countries on the planet, and with wealth comes inevitable opportunity, especially when a nation’s own population cannot fill all the skills demands of the huge number of projects ongoing there. And as far as most expats are concerned, the rewards offered outweigh the restrictions on movement and lifestyle.
Things are looking pretty rosy economically. Due to rising oil prices and increased foreign investments, Saudi Arabia’s national economy has grown rapidly over the past ten years and has doubled in size since 2002. In addition to this, partly as a move to head off any potential outbreak of ‘Arab Springitis’ in the Kingdom, the government announced a US$400 billion plan last year to improve the nation’s energy and water production systems, transportation network, housing and education over the course of the next five years. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, public investment in infrastructure projects alone between now and 2020 will be more than 375 billion Saudi riyals (around £64 billion), enough to sustain a nationwide construction boom in the transport sector.
Just like its wealthy neighbours, oil-rich Saudi Arabia doesn’t like to do things on a small scale. The 601-m-high Abraj Al-Bait Towers in Mecca, also known as the Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower, featured in Nexus in 2010, is the world’s second-tallest building and when it opens later this year it will become the largest hotel ever built.
Meanwhile, one of the country’s main hubs both nationally and internationally, the industrial port city of Jubail, is already considered the largest industrial complex of its kind in the world, and a massive redevelopment and expansion is underway. The so-called Jubail II project will eventually expand the port and add a second industrial area housing around 22 new primary industries. Taken as a whole, Jubail II is considered one of the largest current construction projects anywhere. The 22-year plan, already halfway through and due for completion in 2024, is thought to involve investments totalling US$80 billion. This will eventually double the city’s population.
Employment desert, or land of opportunity?
This all sounds exciting, but what does it mean for European expats - especially when you consider that developments such as the Mecca hotel are in a place non-Muslims are forbidden from entering, on pain of death? Moreover, large infrastructure and construction projects in this region usually involve the import of massed labour from the Subcontinent, who are often paid peanuts and treated like slaves. This may still seem like an opportunity for someone used to living in poverty, but a skilled Western engineer is less likely to see it as a selling point.
Of course, it is not all about construction. There is the small matter of the oil and gas industry, of which Saudi Arabia could justifiably lay claim to being the global epicentre. It produces 10% of all the world’s oil (second only to Russia), has the second largest estimated recoverable oil reserves (after Venezuela), and while gas is marginally less important it still ranks in the global top ten in terms of both reserves and production. No wonder then that there is a demand for skilled workers to go there and help exploit it.
So what’s going on? And who is hiring? Most recruiters agree that as far as oil and gas and other petrochemicals projects are concerned, most in Saudi are located around the industrial cities of Jubail (in the Eastern Province) and Yanbu (in the Western Province). “The Eastern Province still attracts more Western expats than the other two major areas, Riyadh and Jeddah,” says Steve McAllister, Managing Director of Network Overseas. “Aramco are still as busy as ever, and the current high oil price, which should continue to rise, has fast-tracked many new projects, along with some that were mothballed. The requirement from the West is mainly for Project Management teams, especially from UK and Europe who, generally speaking, offer better value than North Americans nowadays.”
As perhaps the world’s most important oil producer, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue as a location for major projects for the foreseeable future. Among the biggest for which expats are in demand is a series of joint ventures between state oil company Saudi Aramco and various foreign oil companies. These include SATORP (a new joint venture between Aramco and Total in Jubail), SADARA (also about to start in Jubail, with Dow Chemicals), YASREF (with Sinopec), and Petro Rabigh (with Sumitomo). “The advantage of JV agreements is not only investment, but the foreign companies bring specific expertise that might not be available in the Kingdom at present,” David Clifton, Lead Consultant at NES Global Arabia explains. “New JVs between Aramco and both ExxonMobil and Shell are currently being discussed.”
Besides the coastal oil and gas developments, most expats tend to head to Jeddah and Riyadh. “They’re the most expat friendly,” Toby Ball points out. “Other major projects involve marine work, refineries, major mixed-use developments, stadiums and sports complexes, and airports,” he says.
“Within construction, large scale social infrastructure developments funded by the government (such as public housing, healthcare and education facilities) are generating the majority of opportunities,” Charlie Parish, Operations Director at Hays UAE adds. “Major civil engineering projects (power and utilities) are also underway. Existing investment in large urban developments such as the King Abdullah economic city is also boosting expat employment.”
Within the construction industry there is also demand in another major city, Al-Khobar, as well as some more remote locations where new projects are being built, Charlie Parish continues. “As well as social infrastructure, there is large-scale development of a Gulf-wide rail network, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “Civil infrastructure is also a growth area, to support the many building projects in the region and expected population growth.”
Skills in need?
With so many projects ongoing and in the pipeline in various sectors, no wonder the range of skills in demand is equally broad. “We are seeing requests mainly for commercial and management staff,” Toby Ball of The Highfield Company says.
But the level of activity in oil & gas and petrochemicals in Saudi Arabia is so great, all skills in these sectors are currently in demand. “It is certainly a boom location for these sectors,” David Clifton of NES Global Arabia adds.
Charlie Parish of Hays UAE says that within construction, there is particular demand for civil engineers, project managers and cost managers. But he adds that actual Middle East experience is a key preference, as it is in other Gulf states. “Employers particularly value Middle East project delivery experience, which they usually find by hiring expats from other Gulf nations, rather than people moving to the region for the first time,” he says.
Indeed although Saudi Arabia is more conservative than other countries in the region, people already living in the Gulf may find it easier to adapt to the culture. Speaking Arabic is a more common requirement among employers in Saudi Arabia, where it is more widely used, especially with the local contractors who dominate the market. “In the banking sector, employers are looking for Arabic speakers with considerable Western banking experience,” Nicola Beer, another Hays consultant, adds.
A just reward?
It seems that the packages being offered to expats can vary hugely. “There are people willing to take similar to their Dubai salaries just to make sure they stay in work,” Toby Ball explains. “On the other hand there are some companies paying very large salaries in the region.”
Salaries within the construction industry are fairly consistent with those in the UAE and Qatar, but the cost of living is cheaper in Saudi Arabia. “Although salaries are lower than before the global downturn, working here can still be lucrative for expats due to the tax free status, and an environment that’s more conducive to saving rather than spending,” Charlie Parish points out.
“Salaries in Saudi Arabia are comparable to those in Europe, and the fact they are tax-free makes them even more attractive to expats. Most are supplemented by allowances for accommodation, transport and flights,” David Clifton agrees. “Packages are comparable with neighbours such as Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait,” he says.
Getting in to work in Saudi Arabia is not as straightforward as in some other countries, but provided you have a job lined up it needn’t be problematic. It is not possible to enter without an invitation from a business or employer, so you need to carry out research beforehand. It can take time to get a permanent visa, due to administrative requirements such as verifying your educational qualifications, and general delays by the local labour department. “Expats moving to work in banking should also make sure their new employer is licensed by the Saudi Arabia Capital Markets Authority (CMA), which allows them to operate in the country,” Hays UAE’s Nicola Beer explains. “It can be particularly difficult for expats with families to find accommodation and international schooling within a compound, if the employer doesn’t provide this. As such, it is becoming more common to provide all-inclusive packages similar to those offered in the UAE and Qatar,” she adds.
“Visas take a long time and you have to get a lot of information, such as certificates attested and police clearance (which takes longer than you think),” The Highfield Company’s Toby Ball adds.
NES Global’s David Clifton agrees that the visa process is the biggest issue before arriving in the Kingdom. “This can be a very lengthy process and not helped by the fact requirements differ from nationality to nationality. Visa processing ranges from two to 12 weeks,” he explains.
If you can get one, a multiple-entry visa is recommended - as it allows you to spend time in nearby but usually less-restrictive Gulf states. Employers cannot guarantee you’ll get one as it is the Saudi immigration office’s decision, so you cannot state it as a condition of accepting a job offer. However, it is not generally a problem. “I can’t remember an instance recently of someone being turned down, providing of course your employer is happy to support your application,” Steve McAllister of Network Overseas observes.
Summer heat is not normally an issue for expats (and indeed, after the Canadian winters discussed in last month’s issue, it may even come as welcome relief). But in a country that is largely desert and where fierce sunshine can send the thermometer above 45 and sometimes even 50 degrees Celsius, it isn’t to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, millions of people survive it quite happily. “I think they are aware the conditions are tough and look after staff accordingly,” Toby Ball says. “I’ve never heard of anyone leaving the Middle East due to the heat!”
“Most people find ways to stay out of the heat and in the air-conditioned buildings, and learn to get used to it,” Charlie Parish adds.
Of course, if you’re working out on site, an air-conditioned office may not be an option. “High temperatures are an issue in summer months, but this is countered by starting work early in the morning and stopping outdoor work during the heat of the day (11am-3pm). During the winter the temperatures are an extremely pleasant 20-25 degrees,” David Clifton observes.
Life in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is famously very restricted. Although things are not as bad as a few decades ago, alcohol remains officially forbidden, there is strict media censorship, and women are not allowed to drive – impacting on their independence in a big way. “However, you are within an hour’s flight to most Gulf cities for weekends, providing you have that all-important multiple-entry visa,” Steve McAllister points out.
“Yes you are restricted,” says Toby Ball. “In the construction industry, no drinking can be the big one! Also, if you are not married it will be hard to get your partner there and to have them stay with you. But most people seem happy. You don’t have the freedom you have elsewhere, but if you’re only there to work then it’s fine.”
Indeed, adjusting to the lifestyle can be the main challenge, as it is very different to the West and even to the more liberal Gulf states. “Expats social lives tend to centre on the international community within the compounds,” Charlie Parish says.
“Movement is not restricted, but social activities that are taken for granted outside of Saudi Arabia are not available in Kingdom. [Besides alcohol], there are no cinemas, and men are not allowed into many shopping malls on their own,” David Clifton adds.
An Arab Spring
Saudi Arabia escaped unscathed from the recent upheavals that sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world. But now that much of the region (with the notable exception of Syria) has quietened down, has there been a change in attitude towards European expat workers? Happily, in Saudi it seems the answer is no. “Most expats we deal with are seasoned professionals,” Toby Ball says. “They’ve been all over the world so a little unrest from the countries surrounding Saudi doesn’t seem an issue.”
“We haven’t seen any change in attitudes,” Charlie Parish agrees. But he thinks a Saudi nationalisation programme, which has become more focused since the uprisings elsewhere, will have an impact on expat employment. “The government is giving businesses incentives to employ Saudi nationals in the private sector, to boost employment among the young population,” he observes. “But there remain good opportunities for skilled European expats in the construction sector, where skills cannot be found locally. In the banking sector, experienced expats are being hired to train Saudi nationals, in order to ‘upskill’ the local workforce.”
“The so-called Arab Spring has made little difference,” Steve McAllister agrees. “With the obvious exception of Bahrain, most Saudis and expats really regard it as a ‘North African’ Spring, as the rest of the Gulf remained largely unaffected. The King released billions of dollars into the economy for the benefit of ‘ordinary’ Saudis to quell any unrest. You have to remember that most Saudis remain pretty poor, so even a little makes a big difference. It seems to have worked too,” he continues.
“It is many years since there was any animosity to expatriate workers, and attitudes have not changed,” David Clifton says. “My experience of Saudis is they are extremely friendly, welcoming and helpful. I am yet to meet anyone who might make me think otherwise…”
Thanks to all the following companies for their help in compiling this feature:
The Highfield Company: www.thehighfieldcompany.com
NES Global: www.nesglobaltalent.com
Network Overseas: www.networkoverseas.cc
Want to read Part 2 of this article?
You can read 'Saudi Arabia: The Hottest Jobs' here
The Writer - Tim Skelton
Dutch-based freelance writer Tim Skelton has spent the past 22 years living outside the UK, and has been a regular contributor to the Expat Network's Nexus magazine since 2004. As well writing on expat issues, he uses his engineering background and experience gained at the Dutch environment agency to comment and write about a variety of energy and environmental matters, and is always happy to wax lyrical about his personal favourite subjects - travel, food and beer. When not appearing in airline magazines, national newspapers and lifestyle magazines from Playboy to GQ, he has also written two books: Luxembourg - the Bradt Guide (2008), and Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers (2010).