News analysis: Is the UAE losing its power to lure foreign talent?

Dubai may no longer be ‘the land of milk and honey’, but employers are adamant there are still big benefits for expat workers

Enticing European talent to relocate to the UAE is becoming an increasing challenge for some organisations based in the Middle East, but it is by no means the case for all.

Speaking at a recent roundtable event, Justin Wells, regional head of lifestyle design – Middle East, at Woods Bagot, an architecture, interior design and urban design firm, said his company has observed that the attraction of talent in the field of design requires organisations to have certain characteristics and values.

It therefore assesses five cultural values when searching for talent: uncompromising design; rigorous curiosity; effective communication; collective intelligence; and dynamic careers.

“Design talent comes to the Middle East, but slowly. Often the more statutory and traditional design fraternities are simply more familiar in such places as the UK, Europe or North America,” said Wells. But he described the Middle East as fast-paced, lively and current, and said, despite the volume of design and building project, “most of the design talent is not aware how quickly one can build one’s portfolio and career being based in the here”.

But are the difficulties in attracting foreign talent only constrained to certain sectors? Chris Greaves, MD of Hays Gulf Region believes so. He disagrees that there is any issue attracting employees from overseas.

“This is not a trend that we are witnessing in the UAE. If anything, the number of available candidates in the market is increasing. With every vacancy that we advertise, we receive a huge volume of applications from expats and as a result, competition amongst job seekers for roles is incredibly fierce,” he says.

“Overall, the UAE remains an attractive region to work in. Many candidates are drawn here by the tax-free salaries, as well as the great opportunities for career development across all industries.”

Dubai government figures show that the expatriate population of the emirate in 2014 was 2,115,350, jumping to 2,465,170 by 2016, showing that it is still an attractive place to live for foreigners – if not to work.

“I think it really depends on who you speak to whether or not it’s a challenge to recruit expats,” says regional director of Havas People UAE, Paul Turner.

“There are a number of factors at play. I think the days of big tax-free salaries and big benefits packages are over. People aren’t getting their accommodation and kids’ education paid for any more. It’s expensive to live here and couples tend to both have to work to finance the lifestyle rather than being able to afford for a partner to stay at home.”

“Dubai is not the land of milk and honey where you come out and double or treble your wages; when you consider living costs against salaries, the overall cost of living is on par with the UK, but here you can have a much better quality of life,” says Justin McGuire, a recruitment expert and CEO of MCG & Group.

But the introduction of VAT in 2018 may also be putting people off, adds Turner. “I think the perception of the Middle East as a place to live and work still puts some people off too – especially some nationalities who think it’s a war zone.”

The attractiveness of the region also varies between industries and professions. Turner says he is “surprised” to hear that foreign architects are reluctant to relocate, “given the sheer numbers of new construction projects here.” The education sector is flourishing, he adds: “I have a client who has successfully recruited several thousand teachers from overseas who will start in September.”

The UAE government’s plans for a new visa system – aimed at attracting top talent in tourism, health, education, medicine, science and research – implies that skilled professionals from overseas are lacking in some sectors.

For workers in this sector, the opportunity is huge, says McGuire: “You can certainly progress much quicker in your job out here – the non-oil private sector is growing and in Dubai it’s what is holding the economy together.”

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