‘It would take a magic formula to lure me back to Ireland’
Working in construction in Oman allows Kevin Quinn to broaden his experience
Kevin Quinn: ‘In summer I long for the rains of Ireland and the familiar howl of an Irish wind.’
This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide (and in Ireland) for Irish construction workers. If you would like to contribute your own story about moving abroad or returning home to work in construction, email email@example.com or tell us about your experience in our Irish Construction Workers and Emigration Survey.
Life is good in Oman where Kevin Quinn works as a construction project manager for a Kuwaiti design consultancy. The people are friendly, the job is interesting and the sun always shines. It is a rare day when he longs for some respite from the heat in the form of a shower of rain.
The 38-year-old, who is based in Muscat, has a national diploma from Carlow Institute of Technology, a BSc in architectural technology and an MSc in construction business and project management. Quinn worked in Belfast for seven years before leaving Ireland in 2013 for London as the recession meant he could find only part-time work here.
How did London work out for you?
I was quickly able to find full-time employment in my field. I liked London and quickly made a wide circle of friends of various nationalities. I fully believed I’d stay there. That changed after I received a call from an agent. I had made many applications for employment in various corners of the globe in the year before I moved to London, one of which I had clearly forgotten about. So I found myself one afternoon in the stairwell of my noisy London hostel conducting a telephone interview with a design consultancy in Kuwait.
When the role was offered to me, I declined it at first. Lying one cold December night staring at the ceiling of my studio flat, which was burning through my wages, I had a moment of clarity that would quickly see me moving to the Middle East.
Was it difficult to to leave?
As an unmarried man with no dependants, it was an easier decision for me to make. The harder aspect was leaving my Donegal-based parents, who at this point feel more and more isolated from their offspring and grandchildren.
I had to get my bachelor’s degree attested too. Although I have a postgraduate qualification, the government is concerned only with knowing you have a bachelor’s qualification.
What is your job now? What have you been involved in?
My role is significantly different here. It was a professional step in a direction I had been hoping to take. I’m exposed to much larger projects here and so my experience has increased. The projects are of a different nature and come with larger budgets. My duties are more client-facing, which involves management of internal resources, design schedules and budgets. Previously I was part of architectural production with most of my time spent at the drawing board.
Do you think you would have had the same opportunities in Ireland?
I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to expand in the direction I’m expanding in now. The experience available at home was different. Here I’ve been able to expand professionally in a shorter space of time. I’ve been able to concentrate on professional qualifications that were sidelined at home.
How does working in construction there compare to working in Ireland?
Office hours are longer. We start at 8am and extra hours are the norm stretching far beyond 5pm. In some cases we do all-night shifts to meet a client deadline. The salary and tax-free allowances are the big pull factors. It’s hard to imagine a return to Irish taxes. Living and working conditions are very good, given the added advantage of medical insurance and, in a lot of cases, housing and travel allowances.
What about design in Oman?
Oman is a beautiful country, far from what I had imagined. Muscat, the capital, is predominantly low rise and the high mountains skirting the southern perimeter of the city make for a spectacular city backdrop. The building designs, however, are quite dated and the ubiquitous arch is a talking point at times.
There is a drive to move away from the vernacular in the hope of embracing more modern design, a policy that is slowly taking hold. This is happening more so now as younger Omani professionals make their way through the ranks of local authorities.
Sustainable design is almost non-existent when developments are planned. This takes a lot of getting used to – particularly coming from Europe where sustainability is drummed into building design students from day one. The status quo, however, is maintained here ie traditional fossil fuel-based sources of energy, but this comes with the territory and its corresponding abundance of cheap oil. This supply will dry up eventually, so an increase in sustainable design should be encouraged.
Energy use is one of most striking differences I notice. It’s quite normal to run air conditioning throughout the night here, as well as computer hardware and lighting. It’s not until I go home to visit that I remember the importance of power conservation.
What are the opportunities there now? Would you recommend it?
The construction market is cyclical and we’re heading back to the bottom of that cycle. Recently we have witnessed some quite large culls in staff numbers. Our Oman branch depends on the government for about 80 per cent of its revenue. This is tied directly to the price of oil and, although we’ve witnessed an increase in the price lately, it hasn’t returned to its previous levels.
What is your life like there outside work?
Oman is the jewel in the crown in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – in terms of a healthy and balanced work and social life. Other countries I’ve been based in, notably Kuwait, are more conservative and a social life is not at all like it is back home. Thanks to reforms the sultan began in the 1970s, Oman is now one of the top 10 countries expatriates want to work and live in. For example, I can cross the street from my apartment and walk straight into an Irish pub managed by a Dublin man. There are very good GAA clubs here and it has one of the most enjoyable St Patrick’s Day balls I’ve had the pleasure of attending, managed by a well-grounded group of Irish expatriates.
The climate is wonderful, never really dropping below 25 degrees. In summer, however, the intense heat returns along with high levels of humidity. It’s then that I long for the rains of Ireland and the familiar howl of an Irish wind.
It took me at least a year to stop taking a peek out the corner of my bedroom curtains to check the weather each morning. Another Irish colleague reported doing that for months before he realised it would be the same every day. We enjoyed a long laugh about that in the Irish bar while the non-Irish of our group didn’t quite understand what was so funny.
What are the people like?
The Omanis are very hospitable and some of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and knowing. Learning some of the local language is a good way of getting to know locals outside the office. When I took local Arabic language classes I began to find some surprising links between Arabic words and Gaeilge words, “scian” (knife) being one of them, and “Íosa” (Jesus) another, with the pronunciations being almost identical in each case.
The region and conditions also offer you the advantage of travelling more. I’ve been lucky enough to visit parts of Asia that I wouldn’t have dreamed of visiting while being based at home.
What are your plans? Do you think there are opportunities for you again here?
It’s hard to imagine a move home right now, unless a change in economics forces the situation. I know the market is improving at home, but the quality of life here is hard to top. So it would take some sort of magic formula by the Irish Government to lure me back.
That doesn’t mean I don’t miss Ireland and I try to go home three times a year. My mother jokes that she sees more of me from Oman, than she does her other offspring in Dublin. Keeping a connection with friends and family is important to me and thanks to the speed of communication technology, it’s easier to do than in earlier instances of mass emigration. I also maintain a small collection of literature as Gaeilge, just to keep the native tongue oiled.
Do you have any other advice?
I think it’s important to make a distinction between the GCC and the wider Middle East. There is a vast difference between what’s happening here and the unfortunate events in other parts of the wider Middle East, such as Syria, Iraq or even Yemen, which is right next door to Oman.
The GCC countries are a secure and safe place to do business, far from the realities of war. I’ve never felt more secure and safe in my everyday business, and am confident that it’s a lot safer than the streets of most European cities.
For anyone thinking about making a move to Oman or neighbouring GCC states, then I would encourage it, but not just in construction or engineering. Although we are witnessing a slowdown in the construction market, there is still a demand for other professions such as teaching or medical professionals. The key I believe to a successful Gulf move is an open, non-judgemental mindset.