Q&A: Being an Expat Woman in the Middle East

Have you ever thought about relocating to the Middle East? As International Recruiters, we often engage with candidates looking for a move into Middle Eastern regions, including Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Attractive Middle East based vacancies exist, however, individuals will overlook the opportunity because of uncertainty about particular parts of the world. In particular, women are even more reluctant about moving to a region that is often criticised for issues regarding women’s rights.

We shine the spotlight on the Middle East and issues surrounding women’s lifestyle and provide a live example from an expat we’re in touch with that might help when you are considering a move to the Middle East.

Middle Eastern Woman

The Middle East: An Introduction

Many women may feel insecure about a move to the Middle East, especially due to information bias from Western media outlets and their negative portrayal of the region. However, there’s more to the Middle East than propaganda. For example, many of the inequality issues women have historically faced in the Middle East no longer exist.

In Oman, women hold a variety of executive positions including Ministers, Ambassadors and elected Consultative Assembly Members. In addition, women have fully equal access to school and higher education, including government-funded scholarships to study abroad. Women also have equal opportunities in attaining land from the government’s lottery system.

In Saudi Arabia, the ban on women driving has been removed, stricter laws regarding the criminalisation of sexual harassment have been introduced this year, and the religious police are no longer in force. Women are provided with the same educational opportunities as men, including scholarships for studying degrees abroad.

Although these examples do not mean inequality does not exist, they certainly depict the progress that the Middle East is continuing to make. In addition, there are vast differences in women’s rights and lifestyles between the region’s various countries – so while one country may have stricter laws, a neighbouring country can be very different.

Interview: Joanna, British Expat in Saudi Arabia

Moving from the UK to Saudi Arabia is an exciting opportunity. The country, despite its continuously criticised image, has around a third of its 33 million population made up of expats. Amongst them was Joanna, a British expat who ventured to Saudi Arabia as part of her flourishing career journey.

When asked about what initial concerns she had before moving there, Joanna said: “There were a few things. Mainly, I was worried about all of the unknowns. I had heard there were religious police who could arrest you for anything deemed inappropriate, but I wasn’t aware of what those terms might consist of (the religious police are no longer in force!). I was worried about the lack of freedom women have to do what they want, when they want. I was worried about arriving at the airport as I knew I would be separated from my party to process through immigration.”

These concerns are very common. To clarify, the religious police are indeed no longer in force, and women proceed through airport security separately for privacy and comfort, so they can be discretely inspected by female officers if needed.

The Work Culture

While many women move abroad alongside their newly-hired spouse, many also move to Saudi Arabia for their own job. If you’re wondering what the work culture is like for women in Saudi Arabia, Joanna says: “I was scared about not being as independent as I am at home or respected in my role, but I found that my work was acknowledged, recognised and rewarded based on its merit, not my gender. I felt heard and respected by the men I worked for and with.”

When it comes to male colleagues, Joanna adds that “the Saudi men were also very understanding of the difference between my lifestyle at home and my limited social options in Riyadh and provided me with recommendations from their wives on women-only spas and gyms, and would gladly take us on tours of their city.”

The Expat Experience

Beyond the job that many expats relocate for, Middle Eastern countries have a lot to offer in terms of sightseeing and entertainment. Saudi Arabia was quite a treat for Joanna:

“I found the culture and history incredibly interesting, and I spent time in museums and visiting historical sites. Oh, Riyadh had amazing restaurants – and I was surprised to find I put 1.5 stones on within 3 months!!”

Words from the Wise

On the question of what advice Joanna would give to women relocating to the Middle East for work or joining their expat spouse, she responded:

“I think your ability to live as you would at home will greatly vary depending on whether you’re in a hotel or a compound. But either way don’t expect to live as you did at home! You’re living in another culture, try to embrace what you can and absorb as many of the customs that work for you. But be mindful and respectful that there are different cultural expectations and rules, and these are held with great regard.”

“Oh, and try to find a suitable gym, because the food is amazing!”

Find a gym near you: Gyms in Saudi Arabia

If you are looking for your next career move within International tax across Direct Tax, Transfer Pricing or Indirect Tax or would like to speak to Kingpin International on how we can support your job search, then please get in touch today. Alternatively, view our current vacancies.