The Arab states of the Persian Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collectively known as the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – have become popular destinations for expatriate workers. The benefits for professionals are tempting: tax-free living, impressive salaries and year-round sun.
For expatriate women looking to work in the HR sector, the prospects are pretty good.
Althought the region doesn’t have the best reputation for gender equality, indications are that it’s going through a significant transition. The gender pay gap is still considerable in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but, according to data from the World Economic Forum, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain all outperform Australia in wage equality. Globally, Australia ranks 63rd, whereas Qatar and the UAE rank in the top 10 for wage equality.
Experience in demand
There are no employment restrictions for females across the GCC states, except for Saudi Arabia, says Leith Ramsey, regional director at recruitment firm Michael Page.
“In our own business, 45 per cent of employees are female and we have eight or nine different nationalities,” says Ramsey.
Suha Mardelli, HR director at Bayt.com, the region’s largest employment and recruitment website, agrees. “The percentage [of HR jobs] in Qatar surpass the UAE, but the UAE is a much larger market. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce just announced it has already issued north of 4,000 new business licences this year already.”
In Saudi Arabia, labour laws stipulate that an HR director must be a Saudi national. However, female expats are coming into the country to work in HR on a freelance basis because multinationals are far more likely to hire them, says Najla Najm, a Saudi woman working as a senior associate at Mercer. The space is quite narrow, but a female with solid HR experience and knowledge can always find ways to transfer that knowledge on a coaching basis she says.
Mardelli, who joined Bayt in 2001, says that demand for HR professionals has been growing and is now huge. “The other day I put a job posting on our site to hire an HR person and five days later I had 900 applicants. You’re talking about numbers most recruiters aren’t used to.”
Labour laws in the region have traditionally been seen as both overly bureaucratic and arbitrary, but Ramsey says it’s not as complicated as it used to be. “The GCC labour laws are relatively fair and straightforward.” Clauses tying employees to one company for three to five years before they can move elsewhere still exist but are rarely enforced. “That kind of stuff has happened only once or twice in the six years I’ve been here,” he says.
Nevertheless, conventions in the region can seem daunting from the outside. Adeline Ong works as human resources manager at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. When she initially went to Dubai to fill in for an HR manager on maternity leave, media reports about discrimination and a lack of openness in the emirate gave her cause for concern.
“If you respect their principles, it’s actually a phenomenal place to live,” Ong says. Like Singapore, Hong Kong and London, where Ong has also lived, Dubai has a thriving social scene for expatriate workers. “It’s no different to living in any other city with its cultural eccentricities,” she says.
It’s fair to say, however, that for single women, the move to a society where men are visibly evident in greater numbers, and where marriage is the norm, can be more difficult than for a woman who arrives with her family. Families are very important in Arab society and so it follows that it is easier for expatriate women who have a husband and children in tow to blend into local society.
But the opportunities for any expatriate woman to work in HR are not about to dry up any time soon, with a lack of experienced professionals locally, and analysts predicting solid growth in the size of workforces.
“Companies are going through a transformation,” says Najm. “HR is definitely a buzz word at the moment.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the July 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Bridging the Gulf’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.