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21 July 2017Last updated
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Is working in the UAE harming your career?

It’s the question none of us really wants to think about. But while the tax-free salary that comes with UAE employment might be great for the short term, are you sabotaging your prospects of getting the job you want when you decide to go back home? Tabitha Barda investigates...

Tabitha Barda
1 Nov 2015 | 12:00 am
  • Is there a point at which your experience abroad stops being an asset and begins to count against you?

    Source:Getty Images Image 1 of 2
  • Most of us are in the country on renewable two-year employment visas and are aware that we will eventually need to move on to somewhere else.

    Source:Shutterstock Image 2 of 2

It must have entered your mind at some point in the process of becoming a UAE expat. Because, although the tax-free salary and exciting opportunities that come with working in the country are undeniably enticing, there’s always that niggle in the back of the mind – an anxious little voice that still pipes up, no matter how many brunches or beach days or other lovely lifestyle benefits you try to distract it with... What about when I leave? How will the two years – or four/six/eight-plus years that it so often ends up being – of living and working in the UAE look on my CV when I eventually try to find employment back in my home country?

There’s no doubt that the UAE is an attractive place to work. It’s well known that non-nationals make up almost 90 per cent of the eight million-plus people who live in the country, all of whom move here primarily for the job opportunities. Figures compiled by business publication BQ magazine show that there are more than 2.6 million Indians, 500,000 Filipinos and approximately 120,000 UK nationals (the largest Western population in the UAE), among many others, all working in any one of the nation’s burgeoning industries – from oil and gas, finance and construction to retail, media and manufacturing. As an expat destination it’s an all-rounder; since 2010 Dubai has shot up seven spaces to be number three in the table of nations offering the best quality of life for British expats according to a 2014 report by NatWest, and this February’s job index survey by Bayt.com revealed a booming marketplace across the emirates, with 68 per cent of employers saying they planned to hire new staff members within the year.

“Business in the UAE is buoyant,” says Jack Khabbaz, manager at Dubai-based recruitment agency Morgan Mckinley. “Salaries are very competitive when compared to the rest of the world, as well as tax-free, and they continue to rise at a rate of about 5 per cent each year. Many employers also offer attractive expat packages – which include accommodation, annual flights home, health insurance and sometimes school fees – and, because the market is emerging so rapidly, there is often scope for strong employees to progress in their careers more quickly than they would do in a more mature marketplace.”

Add to this the year-round sunshine and coastal lifestyle and it’s clear to see why so many of us flock to the emirates to build a temporary new life. But ‘temporary’ is the key word here – most of us are in the country on renewable two-year employment visas and are aware that we will eventually need to move on to somewhere else. Are the gold-paved streets of the UAE only a short-term mirage of success that will evaporate once we get back to the ‘real world’?

An emerging marketplace

The UAE might be full of opportunity, but the country’s relative youth – it turns 44 next month – makes the experience of working here different from how the same job might be in a more established country, says David Wilkins, managing director of UAE-based recruitment consultancy, Talentry. “There’s a general concern that some of the working practices and procedures in the UAE are dated in comparison to more developed regions,” he says.

Dubai-based career coach Zeta Yarwood agrees: “Some people might worry about the perception of the UAE market and how that will reflect on them – is it as developed as more sophisticated markets such as Europe or the US? Would their experience be considered as equal to those based in more developed markets? Also for certain positions, such as business development, for example, current market knowledge is essential, and so time abroad might have a detrimental impact solely due to having spent time out of the country.”

Just as a lot will depend on your industry and specific role, the work experience that you gained before moving here will also have an impact on your employability once you return.

Jennifer Drury*, a 28-year-old fashion stylist who grew up between the UK and Dubai, forged her early career in the emirate, beginning as an intern and then progressing her way up to stylist level on an established international fashion magazine brand after three years. However, when she decided to move to London three years ago, she found that the increased competition, and the fact that her only work experience was in the UAE, counted against her. “I did at least manage to get some decent interviews, but I always lost out to candidates who already had some London experience,” says Jennifer. “Eventually I had to start applying for jobs outside of where I had experience, and I ended up finding a junior PR role.”

After sticking at it for a year, Jennifer saw a new fashion stylist position advertised back in Dubai and jumped at the chance to return. “The pay’s better, the commute and quality of life are better, and I can get a job in the area I am passionate about. It’s a no-brainer really, although I do worry about my prospects for the future if I had to move back to the UK for whatever reason.”

In contrast, 35-year-old Charlene Stubbs, who lived in the UAE for almost 10 years before she and her husband moved to London in 2013, says that they’ve not noticed any job-related downside as a result. “At the end of the day, experience is experience, and if you can prove you’ve got what it takes, I don’t think because you have ‘UAE’ written on your CV it’s a detriment to your career,” she says. “I decided to change careers after leaving Dubai anyway, but my husband Kev is a cameraman and so far he hasn’t experienced any negativity with regard to having spent nine years of his career in Dubai – it’s just the usual scenario of London being tougher to break because it’s such a competitive city. In fact he’s mentioned that there are a lot more people in specific roles here – such as edit producer and series producer – whereas in the UAE he would often be shooting with just one person and had to take on roles other than just being the cameraman. It means people have been impressed by how much he is willing to do compared to other cameramen in London. If you’re good at your job, it doesn’t matter where you have been based.”

Big fish, small pond

“I was able to progress far more quickly in Dubai than I would have done if I’d stayed in the UK,” says Georgina Turner*, a 32-year-old teacher-turned-reporter who moved to the UAE in 2010 after retraining at the National Union of Journalists, and then returned to London in 2013. “Due to there being fewer people in the industry in Dubai, my skills were more valuable and I was able to take on challenges that wouldn’t usually have been offered to someone so junior. However, as that is the case for many people in Dubai, your skills don’t hold quite the same weight when you return and, as the media industry is a lot bigger elsewhere, it can be difficult to slot back in. Realistically, it is seen as less valuable than working in London – but being able to progress so quickly does balance it out. For me, it was the best boost to my career I’ve had, and I’d recommend anyone to go abroad to climb the ladder quickly – but I’d also warn them to expect an initial step down when they return.”

In contrast, Stefan Williams*, a 39-year-old solicitor from South Africa, believes his work experience in a local Dubai law firm put him in the best position possible when it came to moving back to South Africa. “During my time in the UAE I worked with world-class lawyers from across the globe on some really challenging and interesting matters. I can honestly say that I would not have gained the same kind of experience had I stayed in South Africa and I do not believe I would have been give the same levels of responsibility at the relevant times in my career, or the same opportunities for that matter.” Having moved through the ranks of senior associate while in Dubai, Stefan was able to win a partnership position on his return to his home country. “I think that without my experience abroad, I wouldn’t have been able to secure the position I returned to. The job market is very tough in South Africa at the moment and I believe that my experience in Dubai definitely made it less difficult for me to find the position I wanted.”

The international element

Unless your industry requires very geographically specific knowledge, international experience is almost always a bonus, explains career coach Zeta Yarwood. “It provides candidates with a different perspective on market, industry and company dynamics. A different perspective that could add value to their business,” she says.
“Also, if the company is looking to expand into the region or possibly grow an existing UAE office further, anyone with first-hand experience will, of course, be an asset.”

This was certainly the case for Alice Peters*, a 32-year-old digital content editor from Canada. “My time working in the UAE definitely helped me stand out to employers when I came back to Toronto. At one place the manager interviewing me said that he was originally looking for someone more senior but that he had wanted to meet me because of my Dubai experience – I ended up being offered the job.

“As far as professional development in the UAE goes, I think my scope of work was much broader than it would have been had I held the same roles in Canada. So as a result, I think I had the chance to develop a wider array of skills.”

After three years in Dubai, Alice moved back to Toronto in the summer of 2014. “Even in a very poor Canadian economy, I didn’t struggle to find work. There are so many people with the same skills, education, and experience, so I think having worked abroad helps you stand out. Plus I think it probably helps demonstrate to potential employers that you’re a curious person, adapt easily, and are willing to take risks.”

Marnie Simmons, a 47-year-old estate agent, agrees that having the UAE listed on her CV immediately communicated some of her best qualities to potential employers back in her native Scotland. “Having worked abroad did not make it difficult to get a job when I wanted to move back home in 2014, as I found a position quickly and was offered three posts, in fact. The employers were impressed that I had such good life experience and saw me as a go-getter.

“However, I did have to backtrack on my level of entry as I had been a regional sales manager and took a position at a basic sales level. This was partly because I had lost my footing and up-to-date experience and partly because the positions weren’t available.”

The long and short of it

It’s the classic UAE cliché – newbies move here planning to stay one or two years, but the lovely lifestyle means that it soon turns into four years, eight years, or even longer. But is there a point at which your experience abroad stops being an asset and begins to count against you? “I don’t see that there is a deadline for coming back, so to speak, but I would suggest that the UAE is usually seen as a four- to six-year stint,” says Simon Churan, managing director of Certes,
a UK-base IT recruitment firm.

Managing director of Talentry, David Wilkins, adds another perspective, “As with working for the same company in the same role for an extended period of time, employers might view an individual who spends a long time working only in the UAE as institutionalised and unused to change. The UAE and the Middle East have very different business cultures to Europe or the US. Unless you have exposure to different regions within your role, I would say five years would be a good stick in the sand.”

But for many people it’s about the bigger picture anyway, points out Dubai-based career coach Zeta Yarwood. “For some, making and saving money, experiencing working abroad, or simply having a fresh start are bigger drivers than career progression in their home country.”

This was the situation for 42-year-old Digna Ruth Marinas Martinez, who worked as a sales executive in Dubai for 10 years before recently moving back to the Philippines, where she’s become a college instructor in San Fernando City.

“The income I earned in 10 years in the UAE was far more than I could have earned in my country,” she says. “However, that’s the money side – career-wise, my former colleagues are way up the ladder already, while to some extent I have had to start all over. I don’t expect it will be difficult to climb though, because I already have the experience – it’s just a matter of it taking time to adjust to and absorb the new system.”

While a lot depends on your industry and previous work experience, as the UAE continues to make its mark on the world map, it offers more and more to expats considering a move here.
So much so, in fact, that there are growing numbers of ‘boomerang’ expats, who live and work in the UAE for a few years, then move back to their home countries, before returning once more to the UAE – not because life was grim in their native countries, but because the UAE simply has more to offer in terms of lifestyle and specific job opportunities.

Nicola Keating, 29, is one such expat – having worked as a writer in the UAE for several years, she and her chef husband moved to New Zealand two years ago, where she found a job quite easily. But a couple of months ago they returned to Dubai once again because her husband had been offered a role he couldn’t refuse. “The pace of work in the UAE meant I had a work ethic that impressed in New Zealand,” reflects Nicola.

“Some people look down on Dubai experience, I’m sure. But that wasn’t the case in New Zealand. And that’s continuing to change. Dubai is becoming one of the world’s big global cities and so any employer who looks down on it wouldn’t be one I’d like to work for.”

*Names changed on request

Are you worried about finding a job when you move back home?

Yes

“Now that I’ve worked in Dubai it will be very difficult for me to run a business in my home country”

 

Rimpy Gupta, IT company manager originally from India

 

“Working here is much more efficient than back at home. Whenever we do business with an India-based vendor we are generally disappointed by their lack of punctuality and reliability. I feel we are spoilt living in a country with no tax and lots of help available at every step. I think it will be very difficult for me to run a business in India as efficiently and profitably as I do in Dubai.”

 

No


“My work has suffered being in Dubai”

 

Arman Merchant, fashion and film photographer originally from India

 

“We’re from Mumbai, where there’s a flourishing film and fashion industry. Since I had a lot of experience and contacts there, being a freelancer was easy. Here, the work is very limited and there’s not much of a film industry either. So my work has suffered being here, whereas I think I could slot back into Mumbai quite easily.

Tabitha Barda

By Tabitha Barda

Deputy Editor