A Region of Extremes
The “ME” in “EMEA”, the Middle East, is the common name for transcontinental areas of West Asia and Egypt originating from the British worldview in late 1800’s. It is a region often in the news concerning oil prices, conflict, refugees and political instability. It is also an area that can pose significant relocation/assignment-related challenges.
The 17 countries of the region have over 400 million people today and cultures with extremely diverse religious, political and economic backgrounds. The region is young – over 40% of people are under age 25.
The extremes of wealth are also clear there. Some Middle East countries are fabulously wealthy while others are quite poor with high unemployment rates. Most nations in the region rely predominantly on export of oil and oil-related products for their GDP, but others – Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Israel – have increasingly diverse economies. Exposed to global trade/financial conditions and any increase in regional tensions, the Middle East’s economic outlook remains “subdued”, says The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Regional Economic Outlook: Middle East and Central Asia October 2017.
However, the IMF also states that “attracting skilled expatriate workers to the region will remain key to maintaining competitiveness” as supported by the region being an increasingly popular destination for corporate investment. The World Bank reported growth has picked up across the region and The Harvard Business Review reported the region remains attractive, is rich in opportunities and is an exciting expansion opportunity for multinationals across industries.
Varying Customs, Laws, Challenges
To mitigate risk and help relocation/assignment success, it is critical to ensure candidates going to the region are open minded, flexible and open to cultural differences. Previous experience dealing with challenging situations and other international assignments are also a plus.
It is also important for candidates and accompanying family to be educated about not only the Middle East overall, but that of each nation’s customs and how each might impact their specific move or assignment or how they conduct business. One should not assume what is acceptable in Dubai will be suitable in Riyadh for example.
According to NEI Service partner Aperian Global, ways in which business is conducted differently in Middle Eastern countries include:
- Those in the region tend to value indirectness and aim to avoid offending others. They may talk around an issue or make promises that are not delivered upon if there is a reason that would potentially offend you.
- The word "no" is often avoided, with a polite but vague response offered instead. Watch for nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, hesitation, or body language, to discern true feelings.
- Eloquence and expressiveness are considered positive traits; not showing emotion may seem insincere. Try to match your local counterparts' level of effusiveness to demonstrate sincerity.
- Be aware that words are powerful; many in the region believe that they may influence circumstances or create negative consequences. Pay careful attention to your choice of words when communicating with Arab counterparts.
- Personal space between people conversing is generally smaller than in some other cultures, and touching, hugs, and handholding are common among those of the same gender, so do not back away from these approaches.
- Avoid public displays of affection between men and women; it is illegal in many places.
Another area to note for the region is on personal rights: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens generally have limited or highly restrictive rights in some parts of the Middle East and face open hostility in others. Attitudes towards women, compared with the Western world, can also be quite different. Saudi Arabia has considerable restrictions of women, who need to dress conservatively and generally be escorted by a male family member when out. Only recently was there a royal decree announcing the end of a decades-long unofficial ban on women driving. Other recent social reforms include the opening of movie theaters, music concerts and allowing women into sports stadiums for the first time. Such reforms are aimed at improving Saudi Arabia’s image abroad, increasing women’s participation in the workforce and boosting local household spending.
Yet, while discrimination against women remains prevalent in some areas, again, not all countries have the same laws or beliefs. Turkey, Kuwait and the UAE are mostly modern, and many female expats have less difficulties adjusting to life there. Additionally, women make up 37% of expats in the UAE and 36% of expats in Qatar today.
In the Middle East, expat women also may be more closely observed than expat men. To successfully integrate, it is important to be mindful of the local customs, traditions and show respect towards the dress codes, religions and beliefs.
NEI Drives Solutions for Middle East Challenges
Frustrations with processes in the Middle East can be as common as other regions in the world, such as securing drivers’ licenses. A survey by the insurance company Zurich found about half of all expatriates who moved to Dubai felt that simple tasks -- such as obtaining a driving license -- proved very difficult for 21% of respondents. According to NEI service partner Aperian Global, familiar challenges for outsiders to the region can include:
- Managing the pace to get things done
- Navigating hierarchy and the implicit rules
- Having misconceptions of Islam and the Arab region
- Being too task-focused (“Foreigners come and go…” as the local saying goes)
Assignee/family Middle East region assimilation can have unique challenges. Consider this example:
NEI Case Study: South Korea to Israel Assimilation Challenge
An assignee with highly-specialized technology skills, along with his spouse and two children accepted a long-term assignment to Israel from South Korea. Though strongly encouraged, the employee and spouse declined to participate in a cultural awareness training program offered by the client. They did not speak Hebrew and local Korean language translation services were scarce.
The family was extremely selective about housing they would accept and, after some delay, finally settled on a leased home of their choosing. During Israel’s monsoon season, heavy rain resulted in regular power outages and roof leaks, leading to the spouse slipping on a wet floor and visiting the hospital. Rain also damaged the home’s refrigerator and electric gate, denying them access to their property. The home was then robbed, requiring a security system to be installed. Pulled between job demands, travel and his family, the assignee was stressed.
Solutions: NEI advised our client of these unique challenges as they occurred and, together, strategized effective solutions. Due to our clear communication lines and recommendations, the following was proposed for the assignee to avoid a failed assignment:
- Ongoing support was provided through NEI’s local expert DSP who spoke both English and Hebrew. He communicated to the assignee who spoke both English and Korean. This allowed the DSP to translate for the landlord and maintenance firm. All necessary home repairs were resolved.
- Intercultural training that the couple had turned down originally was re-proposed and gratefully accepted. This was especially effective for the family as the selected consultant spoke their native Korean fluently and traveled to Israel for in-person training. After completing the program, the family ventured out more and the spouse enrolled in local activities to meet people and network.
Result: The family began adjusting immediately – even extending their Israel assignment an extra year!
NEI has a long history of helping to manage clients’ Middle East relocations. We believe partnering with local, expert and strongly vetted Destination Service Providers is critical for success. All of our DSPs must be well-versed in the customs and protocol of the country. Other partners include moving companies and forwarders, temporary living providers, tax reporting and consulting services, language and intercultural training specialists, and visa/immigration administrators.
Local DSP representatives are pre-qualified by NEI and possess the expertise, credentials and experience needed to help the assignee fully acclimate to the new area. Consequently, assignees’ benefits are two-fold: 1) they have on-the-ground expert DSPs who helps immerse them in the local culture; and 2) they have a dedicated NEI Account Executive, available 24/7, to help counsel them through their life-changing event.
Sizing up Middle East Opportunities
More than ever before, today’s expats are expanding their horizons, taking on new challenges and pursuing new opportunities with their companies. Many global companies find the Middle East emerging market a great place to do business with a welcoming quality of life. HSBC’s 2018 Expat Explorer Survey examined 27 countries around the world where expats have the best job security, safety, and social life — and how much it costs to live there. Six Middle Eastern locations made the list with three in the top ten including: Kuwait #23, Saudi Arabia #22, Qatar #17, Bahrain #8, Oman #4 and the UAE #4.
Whether a seasoned expat or a fist time assignee, it is important for all to research and become familiar with their Middle Eastern destination location through formal intercultural programs and online sites – such as the free NEI Cities web-based tool that provides links to destination information so employees can become acquainted with the new location before the move – and GlobeSmart® -- a web-based, tool offered by service partner Aperian Global that provides business personnel with access to extensive knowledge on conducting business effectively with people from countries around the world. With planning and preparation, relocations or assignments to the Middle East can be rewarding career and life experiences or employees and their families.
Yes, We’ve Done That!
With over 30 years’ international expertise, NEI’s experience can quickly assess and navigate the sometimes unique or new opportunities that the Middle East might have for both relocation candidate and employer.
NEI provides global solutions in 120 countries with our Americas, EMEA and APAC regional offices and network of service partners. Our geographic reach extends worldwide to assist each of our global clients – whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. If you have any questions or would like further information, please reach out to your NEI representative.
The above information is for general information only and is not presented as tax or legal advice. Please consult with your tax or legal advisors and internal stakeholders before making decisions and taking any action.