Riding out the recession in the Middle East
Tax-free salaries and a construction boom are attracting Irish workers to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but some struggle with the climate and culture
The downturn in Ireland has coincided with a construction boom in the Middle East, and several of Healy’s former colleagues had already been lured over by the promise of working on billion-dollar projects and earning tax-free salaries. They told him of their comfortable lifestyles and how sought-after his expertise would be, so in the summer, Healy decided to take up a position with Hyder Consulting in Doha, Qatar.
“It was a tough decision to leave, because my wife has had to give up a very good job in financial services in Dublin,” he says. “But I am experienced in roads and infrastructure and there’s little work in that in Ireland any more, and won’t be again for a long time. We are both in our 40s, we have no children, so we said to ourselves, why don’t we go and enjoy life in the sunshine for a few years, take the opportunity to travel, while earning more money, enjoying a better lifestyle and boosting my career? The aim is to move back to Ireland in three years’ time with the mortgage paid off on our Wicklow home.”
The Healys are part of a movement of Irish professionals who are choosing to ride out the recession in the Middle East. The Irish population in the United Arab Emirates has increased by about 30 per cent in the past 18 months to an estimated 6,000 people. The Irish embassy in Riyadh says there has also been a significant rise in the number of Irish families arriving in Saudi Arabia in the past year, where about 3,000 Irish are now living, while another 1,000 are based in Qatar and a few hundred more in Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
The oil-rich economies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are investing heavily to improve their infrastructures. The UAE has $350 billion (€269bn) worth of construction projects under way, with even more money being pumped into oil and gas, petrochemicals, energy and water projects.
Qatar is expected to spend somewhere between $100 billion (€77bn) and $220 billion (€169bn) on transport, stadiums and facilities before it hosts the 2022 Fifa World Cup, while the estimated investment in construction, infrastructure, power, water, IT and agriculture projects in Saudi Arabia could be as high as $1 trillion (€770bn) by 2020.
Irish professionals who gained valuable experience during the Celtic Tiger are in demand. Irish engineering and construction companies, such as Sisk, Kentz, Kentech and Laing O’Rourke Ireland, have also won significant contracts, and some are bringing Irish employees and their families out on overseas packages. English is the established business language in much of the GCC, and design and innovation standards are high.
“The largest projects in the world are currently being built in the Middle East, including airports, metro rail systems, hospitals, commercial and industrial buildings, as well as all the utilities and infrastructure needed to service them,” says Alan Lord, a Monaghan-born director of Hyder Consulting, who has been living between Qatar and Abu Dhabi since 2005.