I have been asked by a couple of readers how one gets a job in the Middle East. The short answer: select a country, research and make a list of the companies in your field, then send a resume with content and a color photo that shows you are both polished and presentable.
But the unrest in the entire region has raised numerous questions about what’s going on in the Middle East in general, and whether the place is suitable to expats at the moment. While I don’t intend to provide the final word on a situation that will be dissected for years, I do feel comfortable making some comments and observations.
First, the Arab Spring is truly historic. There is no precedent for what is going on here, as dictators have wielded absolute power across the region for decades. All of the regimes that have either fallen or continue to be under severe threat, whether they be in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria or Yemen, all have autocrats who have been in power for decades. Some of these dictators have been of higher quality than others; however, all of them have demonstrated in the past few months an inability to recognize the basic dignity of the very people that they rule.
Second, the Arab Spring is an event to be welcomed within reason, because it is so long overdue. All of these leaders have survived through tribalism, patronage, and pitting rival groups of all kinds against each other. These tactics have degraded the civil societies and economies of all these countries. When leaders are determined to control everything, it makes it impossible for entrepreneurs and alternative voices, even regular citizens, to build anything without the approval.
Some of the regimes would still be around if they weren’t so insulting. It’s not just that authorities demanded so much from their own people. It’s also that the authorities demanded so little of themselves, so that they felt they could say and do anything to anybody. The people who went to the streets demanded lower prices of basic foodstuffs, more economic opportunity, an end to corruption and cronyism, and a demand for competence and accountability. But above all the people marched for simple dignity. Their message can be paraphrased in this way: “We are tired of being pushed around. What do you take us for? We no longer submit to your nonsense. We know our rights, and we will not stop until we get them.”
This article by Christopher Hitchens articulates this very view more eloquently than I ever could:
Finally, the Arab Spring is here to stay. When Mubarak resigned, and Cairo roared, the world instinctively knew that somehow history shifted slightly on its axis. The rules of the game had shifted, and it became much more difficult for Arab regimes in power for decades on end to rely on old tactics. In fact, those tactics have proven to be counter-productive in the new environment. The good news is that democratic reforms will come to the Middle East; the bad news is that there is more instability to come in the months ahead.
So what does all this mean for travelers in general, and for working expats in particular? The short answer is that a lot depends on where exactly you are going to in the Middle East.
Syria and Libya are definitely no-nos at this point. While Bahrain has returned to the façade of stability, there is a lot of tension in the areas just blocks off the tourist hot-spots. There are a few places in the world that I would never go, and Yemen is unfortunately one of them.
On the other hand, some places may actually be travel bargains at the moment. Places like Jordan and Morocco should be safe enough, although I do not say that as a guarantee. Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt has some great bargains right now, and tight security. Finally, Turkey and Israel would be fine for visiting.
For individuals who want to work in the region, the biggest draws are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. These are places where people can save quite a bit of money in a relatively short period of time. Are these places safe from unrest? Yes, they are….but people should know a few things.
Saudi Arabia is not happy with what’s going on these days. An absolute monarchy that preserves and justifies its power with the ultra-conservative religious establishment, the government liked having Mubarak around. People power does not go over well here, as stability is prized and fealty to leadership is a religious virtue.
My view is that the Saudis are on the wrong side of history, but as an American, this view is hardly novel. If one gets into the heads of the Saudi government, they believe that they can withstand the winds of change blowing in the region. I think there is an 85% chance of this happening over the next five years. There are deep social taboos against dissent, and the inevitable rise of oil means that the government will be able to buy support.
But there are deep fissures in Saudi society, and if the 15% chance that dissent grows into a movement, watch out. Saudi Arabia is the type of place that will not simmer, but under the right conditions, it will explode.
Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE are even less likely to experience any large-scale movements. The native population is both small and pampered, and the vast majority of the population is workers. But, again, if Saudi Arabia descends into turmoil, all bets are off.
It wouldn’t be hard for almost anybody to get a job in Saudi Arabia right now, and it will get easier and easier. I’ve said it before: Saudi Arabia is a great place to make quick cash and fuel (pun intended) future travels across the world. But it’s not for everybody, and the risks, while exaggerated, aren’t non-existent. The Arab Spring only makes this more true.
Michael Manville, the founder of Retireworldwide.com, recently speculated that today’s Middle East turmoil may present unique investment opportunities in the region. I definitely see the potential, I am just not sure we have reached the ideal entry point for investment just yet.