Unlikely land of opportunity beckons

As Saudi Arabia weathers the economic downturn better than its GCC counterparts, the number of work vacancies in the kingdom have begun to lure jobseekers.

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Two years ago, most expatriates working in the construction industry would have dismissed the idea of taking a job in Saudi Arabia, even for short projects. There was far too much happening in Dubai, where they could earn a high salary and live the good life. But times have changed and Saudi Arabia has become more appealing. This reversal is due partly to a shortage of work in Dubai and in their home countries, but it is also because people want to stay in the Middle East.

"Saudi is what Dubai was 10 years ago," says Zeina Tabari, the chief corporate affairs officer at Drake and Scull, a construction company based in Dubai. The Saudi government, which is ploughing millions of dollars into civil and social infrastructure projects, is weathering the downturn slightly better than its GCC counterparts, resulting in more job opportunities. Drake and Scull is making the most of the wave of redundancies in Dubai to hire staff in Saudi Arabia. It recently held an open day to recruit 300 people to work on its projects there. The company also has an induction programme to help people adapt to Saudi Arabian culture

Keeping in mind the lifestyle restrictions, it takes a certain type of person to live there, says Joanne Robertson, the associate director of operations at APG Global, a recruitment firm based in Australia. "It also depends if you take your family, too, as to how you will settle in, and on where you live," Ms Robertson says. "We have placed people in Saudi and recruited for many more positions but it is always a hard sell. The reason being that there is a lot of stigma about the place and lots of stories, with many of these stories having an element of truth to them. But the good news is that Saudi Arabia is changing very rapidly and becoming more open, so it will only improve."

Ms Robertson advises those considering a move there to "make an effort and be open-minded". "It is a more challenging lifestyle than other traditional expat locations such as the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, but you get out of it what you put in," she says. How well you settle also depends on where you live in Saudi Arabia or whether you choose to move into a compound designed for the expatriate community.

Ms Robertson describes Al Khobar, in the east, as being "relaxed" and close to Bahrain for weekends, while Jeddah in the west is seen as being trendier and more family orientated. Life in Riyadh is stricter, but it has the largest share of jobs. Many people are attracted to Saudi Arabia because it gives them the chance to save money, something they found difficult as the cost of living increased during Dubai's boom.

Salaries may be lower in Saudi Arabia but this is offset by lower living expenses. Yousef Ayyash, 24, and his friend, Omar Aqel, 23, both engineers from Jordan, attended Drake and Scull's recruitment day. "I want a job in Saudi Arabia because you can save money and it is cheap," Mr Ayyash says. Mr Aqel says that while the lifestyle in Saudi Arabia would be considerably more restrictive than in the UAE, this was not a priority at the moment.

"I'd prefer the UAE but my goal is money first," he says. "Right now, you cannot look to the location." agiuffrida@thenational.ae * Additional reporting by Leah Oatway