Making the Right Career Move

Our ambition is to connect brightest and smart talent with industry leading employers in our regions.  We also take responsibility to provide latest and accurate regional information to our talented candidates. We believe validated information would help you make right choices in your career and regional move.

Working in the Middle East always draws a natural amount of interest and curiosity for ex-pats who may be exploring a career in the region, particularly related to social customs, attractive reward packages and also the evolving political situation.

FSR Search are at hand not only as search consultants for Multinationals and large local companies but also as advisors for candidates seeking to relocate themselves or their families to the region. The decision is a big step, so it’s important to ensure you have support in understanding what it is like working in the region. FSR Search is committed to delivering a personalised solution for candidates and employers alike, so in accepting an employment offer, it is important that the right decision is made to satisfy the long term expectations for candidate and employer alike.

Herein, candidates can explore some information that they may find useful in better understanding what working in the Middle east is all about.

Quick Facts

  • 98% of expats in Saudi Arabia claim they have more disposable income than they ever did back home; while 94% say the same thing about Qatar and 87% of the UAE.
  • 92% of expats in Qatar say they save more money at the end of every month than they did back home; while expats in Saudi Arabia (89%), Bahrain (88%) and the UAE (80%) are in strong agreement with this idea. 
  • 94% of expats in the UAE say they pay less tax than in their country of origin – and the figure is above 85% for all the other GCC nations as well.
  • In terms of job industries, the current Middle East Expat job market looks most promising (in descending order) for those working in the following disciplines: engineering, sales and marketing management, accounting/banking/finance, IT and communications, healthcare, administration, education, and arts/design.

Some Reasons for Working in the Middle East

  • Financial: The opportunity to earn highly competitive expat salaries that are often enjoyed with the advantage of tax concessions for expats. Working for a sustained period can obviously accelerate individual business / retirement plans.
  • Cultural experience: Having the opportunity to work with like-minded people from across the world. Expas can often find themselves working with people from 20 – 30 countries, from a broad range of cultures, religions and backgrounds.
  • Location: 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, 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: Living and working in the Middle East creates a common bond through shared experience. 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.
  • Making a difference: Alongside the number of world class organisations in the region, there are a number of growing organisations that are yet to fully embed ‘Western’ processes and standards but are open to change. Making in an impact in such companies can be rewarding and fantastic for professional and personal development. This can range from areas such as Marketing through to Safety and Quality Management.
  • International track record: 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. Working in 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. This leads nicely 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 now 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 East. 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.

Western Expat Salaries in the Middle East

Below are averages disseminated from a recent salary survey of Western Expats working in the Middle East region across a select few job categories. Please note that this is indicative and can vary across industry sectors. 

Job Description Bahrain Saudi Arabia Kuwait UAE Oman Qatar Middle East Average
General Manager (Multinational Company) 12,500 15,000 15,000 15,000 12,500 12,500 13,750
General Manager (Local Company)
10,000 10,000 10,000 10,000 10,000 10,000 10,000
Head of Information Technology
7,500 9,167 9,167 9,167 7,500 7,500 8,334
7,500 8,000 8,500 8,000 7,500 7,500 7,833
Business Development Manager 9,000 10,000 10,000 10,000 8,500 9,000 9,417
Banking –  Head of Operations
10,833 16,250 13,452 10,833 10,833 10,833 12,187
Creative Arts Director
6,618 11,904 8,303 8,662 6,447 7,592 8,254
Sales Manager
7,000 9,000 8,000 8,000 7,000 7,000 7,667
Construction Project Manager/Chief Engineer 10,000 11,667 11,667 11,667 10,000 10,000 10,834
Country Averages for Expat Employees 9,651 12,730 11,478 10,904 10,048 9,727 10,696

Working and Living in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Economy

The country’s prosperity is largely founded on oil, since it’s also the country with the largest oil reserves worldwide. The petrochemical industry accounts for 45% of the GDP, 80% of the state’s budgeted revenues, almost 90% of all exports, and 90% of the earnings from the export sector.
The oil industry in Saudi Arabia is very much in the hands of the government. Saudi Aramco, a formerly US American petroleum company, was nationalised in the 1970s. Nowadays, it’s the biggest oil producer in the world.

In stark contrast to big business, the local Saudi economy is often dominated by small and mid-sized enterprises, frequently run by family members. Such family-owned SMEs working in Riyadh and other major cities are mostly active in trade. Since the nation has only a small agricultural sector and little industry other than petroleum, it needs to import lots of food, textiles, vehicles, and machinery. Thus, commerce and marketing seem a logical choice. However, in recent years, despite the environmental restrictions placed on farming in the Kingdom, companies across dairy, poultry and snack foods have seen solid growth levels, with FSR’s long standing client, Almarai, being one such organisation.

Future Growth Sectors

The Saudi government recognises the importance of diversifying the economy. In the long run, they must end their exclusive dependence on the petrochemical sector, or the national economy will collapse once the oil reserves are exhausted. The plan to support other industries is also a chance for foreign companies, investors from abroad, or expatriates interested working in Riyadh.
Diversification is also opening up new opportunities, for both locals and expats moving to the country, in a variety fields: information and communication technology; natural gas production, to find an alternative to oil; power generation and renewable energies, to satiate the growing population’s demand for electricity; transportation, to transform a sprawling cityscape made for cars and to improve the nationwide transport infrastructure; recycling, waste water treatment, and desalination; medical equipment and healthcare in general, to maintain the hard-won quality of life.

Labour Market Trends

The country will need an even larger, more industrious labor force to realise plans for economic diversification, from specialised university graduates to menial workers. Ironically, Saudi Arabia has a high unemployment rate. Officially, 10.5% of the (male) population doesn’t have a job. Among younger men, the figure may even be as high as 25% or 30%.

To increase the number of Saudi nationals working in Riyadh’s private sector and in all sorts of jobs, the government has repeatedly tried to push a “Saudisation” quota. The latest resolution was passed in 2011 and had to be implemented in 2013. It means that companies with more than 10 employees are classified according to four different categories (red, yellow, green, and premium), depending on the percentage of Saudi nationals among their staff. The poorer the company’s compliance with the quota, the more difficult it will be for their HR department to hire new foreigners, to renew work permits, etc. How this will affect expats living and working in Riyadh remains to be seen.

Saudi women normally have a good tertiary education. The state-of-the-art campus of Riyadh’s Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman University is an excellent example. Most working women are employed in education and healthcare. These two fields offer job opportunities for expat women who consider working for a while. Although more and more Saudis complete their medical training at home, a large percentage of the staff working in clinics and health centers is still foreign-born. Female doctors and nurses are sought after for women’s and children’s hospitals.

The Compound

For expats, the quality of life in cities, such and Jeddah and Riyadh is fairly good, as far as creature comforts are concerned. The residents of expatriate compounds enjoy a lot of amenities. Behind the heavily guarded gates of such communities, the facilities provide plenty of leisure opportunities. Pools, gyms, and various sports grounds are frequently standard features.

As the mutawwa (Saudi Arabia’s religious police) cannot enter these areas, expat women living in Riyadh’s foreign residential areas do not have to adhere to the strict local standards there. The “modest” dress code is abolished; both genders can mix freely during sports and other leisure activities.

If you prefer a quiet evening in, you should get a decent Internet connection, buy a satellite dish, and stack up on books. Most local TV programs are in Arabic, so if you are nowhere near fluent in the language, you may be glad to have other channels.

Exploring the City

As nice as your expat life in Riyadh may be inside your compound, it can feel somewhat stifling after a while. Due to the religious and cultural restrictions on public life in Riyadh, there are no movie theaters or stage performances, but the city has some sights of interest. The National Museum, the Masmak Fortress, and the Kingdom Center with its spectacular skybridge are particularly recommended. You should also seize the opportunity for an organised daytrip to the Arabian Desert through a reputable agency.

Shopping and Dining

The most popular activities in the Kingdom include shopping and eating. The Souk al-Thumairi in Riyadh is a traditional Arabian market where you can buy beautiful handicrafts, jewelry, incense, and rugs for your loved ones at home. Furthermore, there are several upscale malls, in business districts, where affluent customers can shop Gucci, D&G, and Versace.

There are a broad range if cuisines on offer from Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine to Italian dining and Japanese specialties and in the capital, Riyadh, restaurants are surprisingly varied. When out shopping or dining, expat women should take care to enter the “family section” of shops and restaurants. In Riyadh’s Kingdom Mall there is even a ladies’ floor, where you can take off your abaya, which can provide the perfect break from moving about the city in such restricting clothing.


Another way of avoiding the “cabin fever” among expats in Riyadh is making friends outside your compound. Getting to know Saudi residents can be hard because the extended family has a far higher status in Saudi Arabia than, say, in North America or Western Europe. A lot of socialising takes place among relatives, and making friends with non-family members – let alone foreigners – is not always high on the agenda. But you should definitely try to meet other expatriates that aren’t your next-door neighbors. Cultural evenings at foreign embassies, networking events at business associations, the community events at your kids’ international school, are perfect for foreign assignees living in Riyadh.

People and Languages

According to the 2004 official census, Riyadh had slightly more than four million residents. However, a survey in 2006 estimated the number at 4.6 million. In 2013, the population is said to have grown to 5.2 million people.

Due to the many non-Saudis moving to Riyadh, you needn’t be fluent in Arabic. English is spoken in Riyadh’s business world and widely understood among the urban middle and upper classes. Of course, a little politeness goes a long way everywhere. Some basic Arabic phrases will help you feel more welcome in your new home. Brush up your language skills before you move!

Safety in Riyadh

When it comes to personal safety, there are a few things you should keep in mind after moving to Riyadh.

  • If possible, keep your original passport and visa in a safe place. If your sponsor has your passport, make sure to have several copies at hand.
  • Always carry your iqama (ID card) with you.
  • The crime rate in Riyadh has been on the rise, but it’s still comparatively low. The most common crimes are petty theft and car-jacking.
  • You should be aware that Riyadh is a more conservative place than Jeddah. Remember that alcohol consumption, drug abuse, adultery, homosexuality, and prostitution are all criminal offenses. 
  • Adhere to the local dress code when outside a compound (long pants and long-sleeved shirts for men, abaya and an “emergency” headscarf for non-Muslim women).
  • Expat women shouldn’t socialise in public with men who aren’t relatives and should use the “family section” of public buildings.
  • Respect the Ramadan and prayer times.

City Focus outside of Saudi Arabia

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The city is located in the East part of the Arabian Peninsula, touching the Persian Gulf. Abu Dhabi is situated on an island roughly 250 metres from the mainland. It serves as the country’s political centre and main economic motor, producing more than half the country’s GDP.

With Abu Dhabi as with Dubai, standard of living is high. However, expats that have experienced living in both cities tend to see Abu Dhabi as a more authentic Arab experience, more relaxed and natural. Abu Dhabi is also a smaller city, meaning a shorter commute.
Abu Dhabi owns almost all of the country’s oil and gas. The United Arab Emirates has circa 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 5 percent of the world’s natural gas. However, Oil GDP amounts to just one third of total GDP. Abu Dhabi has made substantial investments in other sectors such as industry, tourism, and real estate.


The other main city of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the most populous metropolitan area in the country with a current resident population of about 2.4 million people. The city is closer to Oman and the Indian Ocean than Abu Dhabi. Dubai has emerged as an important centre of business. Although the city’s economy was originally reliant on the oil industry, Dubai’s economy is now based more on financial services, real estate, and tourism.

Expats in the United Arab Emirates can sometimes find challenges in making friends with locals, as compared to other expat destinations. However, this does not prevent expats from enjoying a good social life, through mostly connecting with other expats. Outdoor activities and sports, especially water sports are very popular amongst expats. Most expats feel they were more active in sports that they were in their home country. From recent surveys by HSBC and Mercer, Dubai was rated, in terms of Quality of Life, the highest ranking city in the Middle East.
Dubai is the other main economic centre of the United Arab Emirates. The big difference being that the hydrocarbon industry is a lot smaller. Oil and gas only represent 6 percent of Dubai’s GDP. The port of Dubai is important for the city’s economic activity, especially used by Western companies. Important sectors are tourism, the industrial sector, IT, and finance.


Doha is the capital of Qatar with a population of circa 1 million people. Doha serves as the economic centre of Qatar and the seat of government. The city is situated in the Persian Gulf, west of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates miss a common border by about 30 kilometres.

Qatar can be a difficult place for expats to integrate, more so than other areas in the region, although they feel welcomed at work and enjoy a good social life and review positively about their sporting activities. Qatar also does is commuter friendly although expats need some time to plan to source available accommodation, which is generally much cheaper than sourcing accommodation in United Arab Emirates.

The city’s economy is mostly a product of the region’s large oil and gas reserves. Government, however, is trying to make the switch to an economy that isn’t dependent on hydrocarbon revenue. The real estate industry has experienced immense growth in the last couple of years, partly due to a quick increase in population. As a result construction has been growing rapidly. The most important sectors are the hydrocarbon industry, real estate, and construction. Whilst unemployment in the Emirates is circa low double digit generally, in Doha, the unemployment rate is markedly less being sub 1%. In recent years too, Doha has been recognised as one of the fastest growing cities in the world seeing growth rates in the region of 15-20% annually.