George Stothard

The search for Middle Eastern PROs

a view from

George Stothard

Director, Middle East, Fabric Recruitment

"To be honest George, none of us here are sure if our jobs are really safe - we're just taking it one day at a time". This quote comes from an ex-pat who currently works for a government organisation within the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council).

Like thousands of other communications practitioners from around the world, he was drafted in to a senior post to carry out ‘world-class' communications work.  His job was typical of the sort of brief handed to us over the past three or four years: please find us a global player from a Fortune 500 who can operate on a Group level.

Like so many emerging markets the model was simple: train up local talent by hiring experienced global players who can do two things: build sophisticated communications functions and nurture local talent. It's not a patronising notion of west-is-best, but is simply the case that in emerging markets you have to play catch up very quickly.  This is especially so in the Gulf where oil and gas rich countries need to demonstrate transparency and dexterity in their ability to communicate. 

This means that from a starting point of nowhere, countries like the UAE or Qatar have to build large, sophisticated communications teams that can deliver social responsibility platforms, internal communications and corporate reputation.
Traditionally, skills are handed down and ex-pats are then replaced by newly experienced local people.  This has always been the understanding. 

Bringing in more locals

However, things have changed during 2011.  Whilst most government organisations have had staff quotas for some time - typically the objective is to have 50% local workforce in a government organisations - the drive to hit these quotas and even exceed them has gathered pace. 

It wasn't uncommon a year ago for us to receive the occasional call from an ex-pat somewhere in the Gulf saying that their job had been ‘nationalised', but from Q2 2011 the volume of such calls has increased sharply. 

For the sake of clarity, in the Middle East, an ex-pat is anybody who is not a national of that particular country (even if they are from another Middle Eastern country).  It is a politically-driven objective to deliver employment to as many local nationals as possible.  This trend is happening heavily in most GCC countries, and can be no coincidence that it has intensified since the Arab uprisings in North Africa and the troubles in Syria.

In order to attract the best local people, they are offering salaries that are - by global standards - extremely high

It doesn't end there.  Even when ex-pats can still be hired, the Arab uprisings have created an extra layer of complexity from a recruitment point of view.  Stable GCC countries are increasingly cautious about hiring individuals from places that have experienced trouble.  So, successfully placing a Syrian, for example, in an Abu Dhabi based government organisation is going to be tough. 

It is of course, bad luck for the ex-pat.  But that is the lesser concern.   The greater concern is this: if a company decides to place local individuals in senior posts in complex areas such as social responsibility, investor relations or change management: individuals who are not fully equipped with the years of experience typically needed, that organisation risks damaging its reputation. 

The salary double bind

There are other issues related to these recruitment issues that present longer term pitfalls for these government organisations.  These countries are very new – the UAE celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.   There simply are not enough professionals that are suitably qualified to handle senior roles.

There are a myriad of government initiatives in the UAE specifically aimed at putting local nationals through University and in to skilled jobs – particularly in aerospace or engineering and other areas pertinent to the countries breadth of new industries. 

In order to attract the best local people, they are offering salaries that are – by global standards – extremely high.   The problem with this is that these are not ‘competitive salaries' that reflect the true value of the job or the skills required to do it.  It is a salary that reflects the nationality of the individual.

In the short term, it's manageable (if not expensive) but in the long term it will lead to a skewed workforce that cannot compete on a global scale.  Local practitioners will be so used to being paid enormous salaries that ordinary global firms will not be able to afford to hire them.  

Even now, private companies can rarely afford to hire a local because they cannot afford to pay them the kind of figure they can achieve in a government organisation.  This means that the local workforce will not be flexible - and a successful economy depends upon a flexible workforce. 

Sconaid McGeachin

The dance of the two-tier salary structure

a view from

Sconaid McGeachin

Chief operating officer, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Middle East & Turkey

It is easy for us in the west with our flexible career paths and fluid labour markets to think that it was always thus. We would be wrong. It was not so very long ago that within the nobility the first born took the title, the second went in to the navy and the third the church. Commercial enterprise was viewed as dirty and demeaning. Even within the masses it was common for sons to follow in their father’s footsteps for generation after generation.

Here in the Middle East the desire to walk in a father's footsteps is still as powerful a motivator as it once was in Europe.
Keeping it in the family is just one of several key factors that affect the dynamics of recruitment within the private sector. To many a career within the state is prestigious and confers a status on the family. In a region where the citizens are often in a minority, working for a state enterprise is a way of assuring that you work and socialise with compatriots rather than transient foreigners.

In addition and perhaps most attractive, the salaries, benefits and security offered by the state cannot be matched within a commercial enterprise - a recent Emirati graduate candidate rejected us for a basic state salary over four times what we were able to offer.  Much as we would love to employ more Emiratis given the huge disparity in salary packages its unlikely many will want to join.

The expat/local divide

A popular opinion voiced by some western expats is that the locals are aloof, lazy or not up to the job. This crude disparaging attitude is not only false but completely underestimates the abilities of the host population. Our own experience here at Hill & Knowlton proves the lie. Whilst we have struggled to recruit permanent Emirati hires we have had several extremely impressive interns who have sought real private sector experience before joining state enterprises. Those Emirati's who have worked for us have been immensely capable and would have held their own in London, New York or Brussels.

A recent Emirati graduate candidate rejected us for a basic state salary over four times what we could offer

Whatever the dynamics governments are facing very real challenges to encourage their growing, young educated populations into the private sector. The statistics in the region are stark. According to research by the United Arab Emirates government, just 0.3% of private sector workers are Emirati despite making up 16.5% of the population, in Qatar it's 5% and in Saudi it is just 10% in a nation where 80% of the population are Saudi citizens.  The Qatari government wants to see their citizens making up 15% of private sector employees by 2016.
PR is a relatively young industry in the region, perhaps a little misunderstood by the local population and low on the career path radar. As the governments in the region try to encourage their young populations into the private sector, focus and attention is placed upon other industries and professions.

Let's work together

The Middle East PR Association (MEPRA) is actively trying to encourage local growth working with universities to raise the sector's profile and to highlight the opportunities and international PR career paths available.
Whilst state enterprises are increasingly focused on employing locals rather than expats to manage their communication programmes, our role on the agency side has, if anything expanded. We find ourselves supporting, mentoring and advising our clients as they make the transition to becoming more self reliant with demand for Build, Operate, Transfer programmes with government clients increasing.
More could arguably be done by governments across the region to make commercial jobs more attractive to locals by providing subsidy programmes or to encourage locals to gain greater private sector experience.  If the governments wish to hit their targets for citizens in the private sector and MEPRA agency members wish to attract more locals, then together there’s a need to find a way to radically change the perception of the private sector by locals and attract them into the agency world.

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