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Saudi tops global expat salaries list while UAE slips

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Expat salaries in Saudi Arabia rose by 11 percent year on year in 2021
  • Saudi middle management packages averaged $188k last year
  • Living costs in kingdom up to 53% lower than in Dubai
  • Saudi recruiters offer up to 25% more than UAE packages

Saudi Arabia continues to offer the highest expatriate salaries in the world, while wages in the UAE have fallen in real terms, recruitment experts have said.

Expat salaries in Saudi Arabia rose by 11 percent year on year in 2021 to an average of $188,000 for middle management roles, according to the latest MyExpatriate Market Pay Survey published annually by London-headquartered research firm ECA International.

The report surveyed salary changes in 41 major economies and found that while the kingdom continues to dominate the list, the UAE saw average packages drop by $1,300 in 2021, to around $174,000.

It was the only major location on the list to see a decline.

“Pay and benefits packages for expatriate staff in the UAE fell for the third consecutive year in 2021,” said Oliver Browne, remuneration and policy surveys manager at ECA International. 

“Cash compensation packages rose by five percent, although this was significantly lower than rates of growth seen in other regional economies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

“Furthermore, the costs of benefits continued to fall, with lower accommodation costs outweighing the impact of the increase in cash compensation, causing a fall in overall employment costs.”

Riyadh seeks out talent

In February last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to transform the Saudi capital, Riyadh, into one of the top cities in the world.

Other elements of the plan seek to create 35,000 jobs for Saudi nationals and boost the national economy by up to SAR70 billion ($18.67 billion) by 2030.

The Saudi government also announced that from January 1, 2024, it would cease offering contracts to international companies who did not have their regional headquarters located in the kingdom.

Real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank reported in June that the number of international business licences in Saudi Arabia surged by 358 percent last year, with most of the demand concentrated on the capital, Riyadh.

With the number of megaprojects such as Neom and the Red Sea Project also looking for expat workers, competition is high for workers in the Gulf.

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European expat in Saudi celebrates driving licences for women. Picture: Twitter

Big expectations

A straw poll carried out by AGBI on LinkedIn asked those based in the UAE how much extra they would want to be paid to move to Saudi Arabia to do the same job.

Of the 212 respondents, 42 percent said they’d want to be paid an extra 100 percent or more, 34 percent said an extra 50 percent, eight percent said 25 percent and 17 percent said they would not move ‘no matter how much the offer.’

Industry sources have told AGBI anecdotally that Saudi companies tend to ask UAE expats for their current salary packages and are unlikely now to offer more than 20 or 30 percent above that.

However, Aaron Fletcher, senior business manager at recruitment firm Hays, who looks after the Saudi market, said UAE expats looking for a huge bump in salaries are likely to be disappointed.

“Saudi expat packages can vary depending on the project, employer and location.

“Generally speaking, packages would be more favourable in Riyadh, in comparison to Jeddah,” Fletcher said.

“Organisations typically offer an increase of 15 to 25 percent on existing salaries, rarely an increase of 30 percent or above. 

“Gigaprojects in remote locations offer packages with a fixed salary, education allowances, flight allowances, and cover all onsite living costs/expenses which, in most circumstances, is single status only,” he said.

But while Saudi salary premiums may not be as sizeable as expected, the kingdom’s cost of living remains markedly lower than the UAE.

The Expatistan website, which surveys prices across nearly 1,000 items, from food to accommodation, found that Dubai is 53 percent more expensive than Riyadh, and 19 percent more expensive than Jeddah.

World Cup draw

Ahead of the World Cup in Qatar in November and December, recruitment companies are rushing to hire thousands of workers to support the tournament. ECA International said expat salaries in Qatar increased by 15 percent, the fourth highest rate in the world.

Recruitment firm Barker Langham said earlier this month that while competition is high among talent, projects are not offering the bump in salary levels some applicants may be expecting.

The Dubai-based firm has managed recruitment for around 250 global projects, including the World Cup Qatar 2022, Expo 2020 Dubai, NEOM and AlUla in Saudi Arabia, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab and the QE2 cruise liner.

“There’s a huge amount of competition. The events are searching for similar talent across the board. 

“The talent pool is being pulled in lots of different directions,” said Micah Styles, director of recruitment at Barker Langham.

“There is a high demand for similar groups of people. If you overlay that with UAE megaprojects being built at the moment, and gigaprojects in the kingdom, it really is just mind blowing.”

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