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Tech and tax jobs fuel UAE’s strongest job growth in 6 years

UAE jobs Reuters
Strong employment growth in the UAE does not necessarily mean strong salary growth
  • Salaries not rising as quickly as in previous bouncebacks
  • Emirates face competition from big-spending neighbour Saudi Arabia

The UAE has recorded its strongest employment growth since 2016 in a jobs boom fuelled by technology and professional services.

But despite a growing number of vacancies and intense domestic and regional competition for the best candidates, analysts have warned that salaries — while rising — are failing to keep up with the red-hot jobs market.

S&P Global last week released its UAE PMI (Purchasing Manager’s Index), which measures market activity in the country’s non-oil sector.

The country’s thriving private sector “brought additional capacity pressures, leading firms to increase their headcounts at the sharpest rate since July 2016,” S&P found.

“Central to the upturn was another sharp expansion in business activity at the start of the fourth quarter, as firms generally reported that higher client demand had boosted output,” the report said.

Sarah Dixon, managing director at global recruitment firm Hays Middle East, which operates in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, says a significant part of the jobs on offer are in technology.

“While the market is busy across most sectors, the technology sector was most resilient to market constraints through the Covid-19 pandemic and is continuing to grow at the fastest pace.

“Solutions providers and consulting firms are hiring, and there has also been an increase in hiring across the gaming and payments industries.”

The tech sector worldwide is known for offering high salaries and demanding skilled candidates — and this is no different in the UAE.

“The skills in demand lie in data/artificial intelligence and cyber, with cloud specialists and transformation leaders following close behind,” Dixon said.

“Salary for data scientists experienced an uplift and in cyber security pre-sales salaries are on the rise.”

Gareth El Mettouri, associate director for the Middle East, at California-headquartered recruitment firm Robert Half, says that recent regulatory changes in the country have helped fuel an uptick in recruitment across some professional services, particularly tax.

Corporation tax has been legislated and will come into play in July 2023 for companies operating in the UAE. 

“Corporation tax being introduced across the UAE — a lot of companies have never had to deal with that before,” El Mettouri said. “So we’ve seen a significant rise in demand for tax specialists.”

Robert Half’s 2023 Annual Salary guide points out that “average starting salaries for professional services roles in the UAE are up 3.2 percent year-on-year” — but some roles, such as tax professionals, are seeing “surge pricing” due to the fierce competition for skilled workers.

A report released last week by French business school Insead found that the UAE, with its high salaries and plethora of job opportunities, ranks among the top 25 in the world for talent competitiveness.

Qatar, the nearest Arab country on the list, ranked 38th globally, 15 spots lower than the UAE, and Saudi Arabia came in at 43rd.

A number of reforms have also made Dubai an easier place to work, El Mettouri says, including the introduction of freelance and investment visas, both of which ease the process of setting up shop and doing business across the Emirates.

But, despite being a “candidate-short market”, he warned that “we haven’t seen salaries rise as quickly as in previous bouncebacks, and some of those fringe benefits, such as educational allowances, have either been removed or remained pretty low.

“I’m not seeing money being thrown at candidates.”

Investment in large-scale infrastructure projects has increased demand for labour but the UAE faces fierce competition from its larger, and big-spending, neighbour Saudi Arabia.

While ranking lower on Insead’s employment competitiveness rankings, El Mettouri explained that the sheer scale of the money Saudi Arabia is spending on megaprojects like Neom and the Red Sea Development means it is drawing some candidates away from the Emirates.

“What Saudi Arabia has planned for its 2030 Vision is mindblowing. The gigaprojects happening in Saudi are taking some talents from the UAE,” he said, adding that the competition for workers should ultimately be good for employees.

Likewise, Qatar has been drawing employees away from the UAE in the run-up to the Fifa World Cup — but whether that continues after the tournament remains to be seen.

The disparity in salary levels across the Gulf was evident in the latest MyExpatriate Market Pay Survey published annually by London-headquartered research firm ECA International.

The report, published in August, surveyed salary changes in 41 major economies and found that 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 5 percent, although this was significantly lower than rates of growth seen in other regional economies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

“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.”

By comparison, Saudi Arabia topped the global rankings and continues to offer the highest expatriate salaries in the world, rising 11 percent year on year in 2021 to an average of $188,000 for middle management roles.

Nicki Wilson, owner of Dubai-based recruitment consultancy Genie, said she sees no sign of the UAE’s employment boom easing any time soon.

“As we go into the winter months there is always an influx of activities as the weather is great, there are lots of events, tourists and an amazing buzz around the UAE,” said Wilson. 

“Elsewhere I have noticed a high demand for creatives with niche skillsets, but as there is also a high demand for freelancers in this area, it is harder to secure them on a full-time basis.”

The UAE’s jobs market is also healthy for recruitment firms themselves. Wilson said her own business placed a record number of candidates in October this year.

“As a company, we doubled revenues from the previous year,” she said. “This does not look like it is slowing down anytime soon, so we are all hands on deck and riding the wave.”

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