Riding out the recession in the Middle East

Fri, Dec 14, 2012, 00:00

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

During the boom, Gerry Healy was a road-construction project manager. But in 2009, as the construction industry collapsed and public infrastructure spending depleted, he was made redundant.

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.

“The opportunity to work on these projects means staff gain considerable experience at the cutting edge, and are typically given more responsibility than they would be in more established regions.”

Cold, hard cash

The tax-free salaries are no doubt the biggest incentive for Irish workers. A survey carried out this year by UK recruitment agency MacDonald and Company found that expat entry-level engineers earned an average of €63,000 in the GCC countries, rising to €95,000 for engineers at management level. Wages for construction managers, project managers and architects were at least 20 per cent higher.

Employers typically provide housing or an accommodation allowance as part of the remuneration package, as well as health insurance and a return flight home every year. Bills are minimal as the cost of electricity and gas is much lower than in Ireland; petrol prices hover around €0.38 per litre in the UAE.

The Middle East is at a global crossroads in terms of travel. Emirates and Etihad now operate 17 direct flights a week between Dublin and the UAE.

Irish societies have sprung up in Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Kuwait over the past six years, organising cultural and networking events for the community and providing vital support for arrivals. GAA clubs are also enjoying a boost in numbers, with more than 50 teams competing in the Gulf Gaelic Games earlier this year.

Bríd Tierney of the Abu Dhabi Irish society says the majority of Irish people go to the Middle East with the intention of staying just a year or two but end up staying much longer. Tierney came to the UAE on a year-long career break from teaching in 2004, and “accidentally” ended up staying. “My husband and I would love to move home to Ireland, where family has come to mean so much since we’ve lived abroad, but it just isn’t a viable option,” she says. “The pros to living and working here for skilled Irish really comes down to the financial gains, the one thing Ireland is unable to offer at the moment. Weather and lifestyle are added bonuses.”

After three months in Doha, the Healys are beginning to settle after the initial culture shock. Gerry says they have been made to feel “wonderfully welcome” by a very supportive Irish community, and his work so far has been challenging and enjoyable. “I am responsible for overseeing the design of roads and drainage in an area the size of Blanchardstown and Lucan, and we are also putting together a bid for a new expressway, which is huge. As an engineer I am like a kid in a sweetshop,” he says.

“There seem to be two types of expats out here: those who hate it and are here just for the money; and those who love it. You have to embrace it, get to know people and make the most of your time here, which is what we intend to do.”

Clair Milner: 'We consider ourselves lucky to be here'

“Myself and my husband Colm were both working in the construction industry when I was made redundant at the end of 2008. Through 2009 and into 2010, the construction industry slowed down dramatically. It was a very uncertain time, not knowing what lay ahead for us.

“Colm, who works as a quantity surveyor with an Irish construction company, was offered an opportunity in Riyadh in 2010. He travelled back and forth for seven months until we came out here to live with our two daughters, Aisling (now 8) and Aoife (6) in January last year.

“We live in a villa on a secure compound in Riyadh. There are swimming pools and a playground for the kids, a restaurant, cafe, shop, a dry cleaner’s, beautician’s, tennis courts and a bowling alley all within the walls. It is like living in a small village in Ireland except there are palm trees everywhere and the sky is blue.

“At home in Waterford, the kids came home from school and did their homework and played with their friends and went to parties, and they do the very same thing here. They are at the age when that’s all they want. They go to the British International School, which has fantastic facilities, with just 20 children in each class.

“We consider ourselves very lucky to be here. Colm enjoys his work and I have recently started freelancing again. Living here has given us the opportunity to travel within the Middle East and to Australia and Sri Lanka, which we would never have been able to do if we were still in Ireland.

“We have been here nearly two years and I would stay another two, no problem. Ideally we would like to go back to Ireland, but our minds would be very open to going somewhere else in the future. Why not?”

Culture shock: Adapting to the Middle East

Irish people moving out to the Middle East have to be prepared for an extremely different way of life. First off, there’s the heat – rain falls just a few days a year, but temperatures at the height of the summer often soar to more than 50 degrees, forcing many Irish to return home for an extended holiday in July and August .

Alcohol is available in hotels and golf clubs in Qatar and the UAE, but is extremely difficult to come by in Saudi Arabia, and pork products are also forbidden. Women are not afforded the same social standing in Islamic society, so work opportunities are limited. They are also expected to wear an abaya in public, a black overgarment to cover the legs, arms and hair. In Saudi Arabia, it is forbidden for women to drive.

According to Nora McCarron, who has been working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia for the past 12 years and is president of the Riyadh Irish Society, most people adapt to the cultural differences in time. “The most important thing about coming to any Middle Eastern country is to understand the culture,” she says. “As long as you have respect for Islamic values, the Saudis are the loveliest people. The Irish are particularly popular, because they know we are very family-orientated.

“The way of life varies depending on where you live. In the city of Riyadh, there is every shop or restaurant chain you could imagine.But for those living outside the city it is different. I live on a British aerospace compound 60km from the city, which is beautifully maintained with all the facilities you would need, but once you step outside the gate you are in the middle of the desert.”

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