Uncertain future for employees in Qatar as Gulf neighbours cut ties

Author: Kirsty Tuxford | Date: 7 Jun 2017

HR needs a damage limitation plan to minimise the impact of the Gulf diplomatic crisis

Since the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and a number of other countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June, there has been an immediate impact on employers, with new travel restrictions hampering the free flow of staff and goods between Gulf countries.

Kuwait and Oman have retained ties with Qatar, despite the accusations from neighbouring countries that Qatar supports Islamist militant groups. The UAE and KSA have closed land, air and sea access to Qatar, with several regional airlines – including Emirates, Etihad and Saudis – all suspending flights to Doha.

Qatari nationals were given 14 days to leave the UAE, Saudi and Bahrain, while Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis also have 14 days to leave Qatar and are now forbidden to travel to or through the country. The Philippines has also temporarily banned all Filipino citizens from travelling to Qatar. For the 140,000 Filipinos already working in Qatar, reports suggests life is continuing as normal.

Qatar depends heavily on foreign workers – of the country's 2.5 million population, approximately 90 per cent come from abroad, with most originating in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. 'The Population of Qatar by Nationality - 2017 Report', by the Priya Dsouza Consultancy, estimates that 25,000 UK nationals work in Qatar, along with 11,000 US citizens, 9,000 Canadians, 6,000 South Africans, 5,500 Australians and more than 20,000 Europeans, as well as nationals from many other countries.

“The impact on recruitment is still largely unknown. From contacts in Doha that I’ve already spoken to, they are very much putting on a brave face and it's business as usual,” said Justin McGuire, CEO of MCG, a Dubai-based recruitment company. “Travelling to and from Doha will be extremely difficult, and what will cause great concern among both locals and expats is the cut-off of all supplies including food and medicines by road and air.”

“Let’s be real, though,” added McGuire. “Qatar has always been a hard place to recruit for, with very tough visa restrictions making it hard for Arabic nationals – especially those from the Levant region – to obtain work visas. For employers and clients of mine, this has always been a tricky and frustrating obstacle when it comes to hiring Arabic talent.”

Even if the severance of diplomatic ties is eased over time, Qatar's image as an attractive place to work for expatriates has suffered, meaning the cost to organisations wishing to lure in talent in future could be greater. “My concern is the lasting damage this fallout is going to have on Qatar and the region as a whole when it comes to attracting talent,” said McGuire. “Qatar has very ambitious projects and will need to hire thousands of people as the 2022 World Cup moves ever closer. Not only that, but the GCC economies are also under pressure from lower oil and gas prices, and this issue might well affect matters further and delay economic recovery in the region.”

Thamer Fahmi, rewards manager at a multinational company with offices in the UAE and Qatar, agreed that the situation will make it even more complex to attract talent to Qatar. “It was already difficult to get work permits in Qatar, and especially family sponsorship, now it will be even more challenging,” he said. “It still is too early to clearly know the ramifications of the current embargo on Qatar, especially how it will affect regional or centralised arrangements that ran from UAE covering Qatar.”

The question hangs in the air as to whether offices in Qatar will have to close. "I haven't heard of anything from the HR community suggesting things are moving in that direction. It will depend on business performance and how long this will last before such drastic decisions are made,” said Fahmi.

"In the long term, this will affect business travel and easy trade, and could definitely have a strong impact on Qatar's economic growth, which will lead to a lot of organisations re-evaluating their investment level there.

“There could definitely be a need for a new hiring process, though not until the dust has settled – there won't be any action taken right now. This goes back to the logistical hassle of hiring people in Qatar the first place, which is expected to grow in complexity,” he added.

There are relatively few Qatari nationals living and working in the UAE or other Gulf countries, and vice versa – as remuneration packages encourage nationals to remain in their home country to work. However, nationals from GCC countries do travel frequently as tourists and business travellers around the region, and the loss of tourist income will be broadly felt.