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How to hire (and retain) overseas talent in the Gulf

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Office environments should enhance productivity, efficiency and engagement

Tax-free salaries alone are not sufficient to attract skilled employees: they demand career prospects and a trusting work culture too 

Most companies in the Gulf feel the need to source some of their team from overseas. 

Whether from Asia, Europe or elsewhere, international talent is imported in many sectors: construction, engineering, retail, hospitality, finance, technology, energy, law, medicine, sports and culture to name a few.

In most GCC countries over 50 percent of the labour force is comprised of foreign workers. The UAE is home to over 192 nationalities. Emiratis constitute roughly 20 percent of the 10 million-plus population, meaning there are over eight million expats.

While this established trend looks set to continue, the job market is evolving in other ways which impact on the overseas recruitment practices of employers. 

Employee power

A significant force of change is now arguably less driven by the economy than by workers. And this shift is clearly influenced by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on business practices.

A report by recruitment and human resources firm Hays suggests that the “great resignation” that hit the US last year will arrive in the GCC this year. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September last year alone. 

Sarah Dixon, managing director of Hays Middle East, reveals that over 50 percent of candidates surveyed in the region also “stated they intend to change jobs in the next 12 months”.

A report by recruitment firm Robert Walters also said a significant number have held on to their jobs in anticipation of a bonus and pay rise in 2022.

For the GCC to avoid employee churn it cannot rely simply on the traditional USPs of tax-free status, sunny climate and the social allure of a work hard, play hard expat community.

In this talent-centric market, employees increasingly look for benefits beyond salary. They demand a career path with future opportunities, and funded skills development via professional courses.

In this age of online information exchange they also investigate any employer’s culture – and in particular the acceptance of hybrid or remote work which shows their trust in the talent being hired.

Rohit Manucha, chief human resources officer at UAE company Aujan Group Holding, talks about reshaping the way we work as a collaboration between employer and employee.

“The current world of work is all about creating the right experiences to enhance productivity, efficiency and engagement,” he says.

“It requires organisations to promote active listening, empathy for everyone and a culture that instils trust.”

New labour laws

The UAE government is leading the way in the Gulf with the recent introduction of more progressive labour laws.

Their aim is to continue the growth of its knowledge-based business sector – already a hotbed for both international corporations and startups.

Clothing, Apparel, Face
Helal Saeed Al-Marri, director general of Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism

The new UAE Labour Law offers more flexibility for part-time or temporary work and covers all the HR preoccupations of full-time work including probation periods, working hours, annual leave, maternity leave, discrimination and harassment rules, termination of employment and end of service gratuity.

A reform of note is the Five-Year Multi-Entry visit visa, which paves the way for overseas companies without a presence in the UAE to send their employees to the country for certain business activities. 

Before applying for individual visas, companies register via an online application form, and provide information such as the location of company branches, the number of services offered, number of employees and average annual revenue.

Helal Saeed Al-Marri, director general of Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism hopes the new visa will “make the city even more attractive to people around the world and ease barriers to entry for business and leisure travellers”.

Saudi Arabia – which is also diversifying its oil-reliant economy with its Vision 2030 grand plan – has introduced citizenship to “outstanding” expats, in an aim to retain talent and valuable skills in the kingdom.

As it spends hundreds of billions of dollars on expanding its knowledge-based economy and hospitality sector, it’s surely a job market to watch. Ditto Qatar with the Fifa World Cup 2022.

Act global, think local

But as well as courting overseas talent, the GCC is keen to develop its own young population, the majority of nationals in the region being under the age of 35.

There’s increasing government pressure on organisations to hire local talent over expats, a trend dubbed Emiratisation, Qatarisation and Saudisation.

According to the World Bank, Saudi last year witnessed the total number of male and female Saudi employees in the local labour market reaching about 2.25 million, an increase of 28 percent compared to 2020 when the number was 1.75 million.

The digital skills gap 

It’s clear that digital skills are shaping the upcoming talent demands in the region. And the mismatch between skills supply and demand is hindering social and economic progress – and making talent recruitment all the more competitive.

A PwC survey of CEOs in the Middle East found that 70 percent see the unavailability of essential digital and tech skills as a business threat.

Other skills in demand include data sciences, critical thinking and problem solving, design thinking, e-commerce logistics, IT security and diversity-inclusion, and equity know-how.

Bhavishya Sharma, managing director of Athena, an executive search and consulting firm, said: “The most searches we’re executing in the region are either for tech leadership roles or functional leadership roles like CTO [chief technical officer], CFO [chief financial officer] or CMO [chief marketing officer].”

Evolving hiring processes

So to recap, employers need to evolve their hiring processes according to the new ways of working: to focus on building an engaging company culture, to trust and gain trust by building a flexible working environment, and to work on developing employees through feedback and training.

And the digital transformation of companies often enables more remote working opportunities.

Costs of hiring

The costs of hiring in MENA vary because it includes 22 nations from Libya and Iraq to Oman and Kuwait.

Each country has its own labour laws as well as unique economic, cultural and political conditions. Some countries simplify starting a business, while others are more difficult. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UAE offers many incentives to attract foreign investment compared with war-torn Yemen, which is 153rd on the Forbes Best Countries for Business ranking.

Like the UAE, Bahrain doesn’t currently charge corporate or income tax, unless the company operates in oil, gas or banking. Qatar imposes a 10 percent corporate tax while Turkey, Iran and Syria’s tax rates are significantly higher.

But hiring overseas doesn’t come cheap anywhere – all the more reason to find talent who will develop with the company. 

To employ in the UAE, companies must own a local legal entity in the country or work with a global employment solution. 

Employment solution firms, as distinct from recruitment agencies, manage payroll, benefits, taxes and compliance, and are also known as an Employer of Record.

Hiring a recruitment agency with inside industry knowledge is also an effective way to fill a vacancy with the right person.

Additionally, internal costs for hiring might include advertising, sorting through applications, performing reference checks and overseas travel. 

10 employment solution firms and recruitment agencies

  1. Both UAE
    This Employer of Record service, or employment solutions company, provides an integrated Professional Employer Organisation solution from company setup, PRO services, back office support, outsourced administrative services to permanent and contract recruitment. It helps companies operate in the UAE supported by HR, government liaison and compliance management services including payroll management. 
  2. Remote
    An owned entity Employer of Record, Remote is a one-stop shop for hiring needs — from payroll to benefits to taxes and more. Founded in 2019 by Job van der Voort and Marcelo Lebre to simplify how companies employ global talent, the team works remotely in many countries around the world. It allows businesses to hire in new countries without the financial or time investment of opening new entities or foreign subsidiaries. 
  3. ABC International Placement Service 
    For white collar and blue collar overseas hiring, ABC specialises in placing candidates from Asian countries in sectors including manufacturing, infrastructure, hospitality, retail and finance.
  4. BAC Middle East 
    An executive recruitment agency in Dubai, BAC works with companies in the MENA region to find the professionals that they need. 
  5. Bayt 
    The largest online recruitment service in the Middle East, Bayt serves the region’s job seekers and employers in filling professional job vacancies. 
  6. Cooper Fitch
    The agency aims to find talent that employers then manage to retain thanks to advanced testing and HR advisory facilities. They also conduct bespoke compensation and benefits analysis. 
  7. Hays Dubai
    Hays Dubai sources skilled candidates from all over the world and offers permanent and contractual recruitment solutions. It covers sectors such as accounting and finance, human resources, legal, logistics, oil and gas. 
  8. Inspire Selection 
    This Dubai agency has an established network of contacts and employs knowledgeable consultants to connect the right people with the right opportunities. 
  9. Jivaro Partners 
    Its recruitment expertise is in marketing and communication jobs such as advertising, PR, digital, events, and branding. 
  10. Robert Walters
    The group opened its first office in London in 1985 and has since developed into a global business including offices in Dubai. It sources specialist professionals and helps build the careers of executives.

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