The Middle East: What do Employers Look for?

In the next part of his Employment in the Middle East series, Global Operations Manager, Adam O’Donnell discusses what employers look for in an expatriate candidate. 

I have received hundreds of messages from candidates frustrated with the lack of response from jobs in the Middle East and enquiring if they do have the suitable skill set. Before going into what makes a desirably candidate it is important to state that regardless of your particular experience, if the talent is available from the local market for that particular position, an expatriate candidate is not required.

In sectors such as Oil & Gas and Construction, which have witnessed high redundancy rates, this is particularly true. This does not mean no expatriates at all are required in those sectors; it is however limited to candidates who have skills which are either highly specialised or again not available in the local market.

Below is a list of what makes an attractive candidate for Middle Eastern employers.

Professional Qualifications

A degree is usually mandatory for the Middle East. It is very rare a candidate without a degree will secure a management position in the region. This goes back to my previous blog (How long does it take to get a job in the Middle East), which details the process candidates are required to complete to attest their degree before starting employment.

The majority of sectors will also require a relevant degree to the job you are applying. For example in the construction industry, an engineering degree is essential. Especially in Saudi Arabia, which can have a very strict approval process for issuing an expatriate visa. Occasionally a viable substitute is Chartership. Without a degree, the majority of employers will not look at relocating a candidate from their home country. 

Years of Experience

Opportunities for expatriate candidates with under 5 years’ professional experience are limited. In the Middle East, all countries have a Nationalisation quota to hit. What this means is that each company has to employ a certain percentage of local talent. According to

“More than 28% of the population of the Middle East is aged between 15 and 29. Representing over 108 million young people, this is the largest number of young people to transition to adulthood in the region’s history”.

For that reason, it makes sense that employers will be targeting the growing talent pool of younger local talent. The younger talent is going to be the future of their workforce. Consequently hiring an expatriate candidate with less than 5 years’ experience could limit opportunities for their local talent. It is also unlikely an expatriate candidate with under 5 years’ experience can offer more valuable experience than a local candidate with the same years of experience can. The only industry where I see a demand for expatriate talent with less than 5 years’ experience is for highly educated investment bankers or lawyers in London, Paris, New York etc.

Candidates between 10-25 years’ experience in their particular field are usually the most desirable.

International Experience

Showing that you have adapted to a new culture, worked with diverse teams and have completed a relocation before gives confidence to employers in the region. There is always a concern that a candidate who has only ever worked in their home country will struggle to adapt to a new lifestyle. Candidates, who have only worked in their home country, think about how you can convince an employer that you will be able to adapt. Show in an interview that you have done your research on the region. If you have travelled for holidays or business to the Middle East, reference this. It would also be worth mentioning if you have friends or family in the region. Specify you have spoken to them about life in the region and they will help you adjust. I have recruited candidates with only experience in their home country, so this is not a deal breaker for employers.

Arabic Language Skills

Ability to read, write and speak Arabic is a major advantage for candidates considering moving to the region. There are Arabic speaking candidates who have moved abroad to London, Paris, New York etc. These candidates are usually highly desirable particularly in the Banking and Legal profession.

Thousands of candidates relocate without Arabic language skills so do not let this particular point deter your efforts.

The majority of candidates moving to the Middle East do not have all of the above features or skills, but they are likely to have a minimum of two or three. Along with these skills, the final pointer I would give is the candidate’s attitude. Flexibility, cultural awareness and a willingness to teach/share knowledge are as important as experience you offer to an organization.



Posted by Adam O'Donnell

Adam holds a BSc in Business Studies & Management from a Top 10 UK University and has been with Leap29 since 2009. He is currently Operations Manager for professional services, which includes Banking, Finance and Legal. He is also a Member of the Chartered Management Institute (MCMI). Adam was recently part of a four person shortlist out of 1000 applicants for Recruiter of the Year in the North West of the UK.

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