13 August 2012

Interview: Challenges for Expatriates in Saudi Arabia

In researching challenges for energy companies into key markets I had the benefit of being introduced to John Douglass, SPHR, CCP who was, at the time, head of compensation and benefits for Tatweer Petroleum.  I'd sent him some questions by email and though he was in the final weeks of his assignment in Bahrain he took the time to provide compelling and informative answers.

John Douglass, SPHR, CCP
John Douglass is an experienced human resources professional with significant expertise in leading Mideast organizations compensation and benefits strategies.  He is known for his development of domestic and international compensation and benefits programs, as well as his leadership and succession planning, and manpower analysis and planning skills.   A scholar of the region, he leverages his HR expertise with an understanding of the local language, culture, and religions in the Mideast region.  He may be contacted through his LinkedIn profile:  http://bh.linkedin.com/pub/john-douglass-sphr-ccp/4/4b4/ba5

Below are my questions to Mr. Douglass and his answers.  I am very grateful for his assistance in providing me a real and first-person account of what it's like to be assigned to the middle east and the challenges faced by companies in supporting assignments during the Arab Spring of 2011.

LS:  According to HSBCs survey of expats regarding their assignment conditions, they indicate that Expats into Saudi Arabia rate it as #1 in the way of financial advantages of that location - however, it rates as the least desirable location from an assignment experience perspective.  What are your thoughts on this?
JD:  Most Saudi employers have reasonably well-developed HR functions that allow them to understand compensation trends throughout the ME region.  They know that for expats from western cultures the leap to the Saudi culture is a long one, so they normally incorporate a premium for this in their cash compensation packages.  Most expats have no home country tax obligations – the tax break is less favorable for Americans and Canadians.   
The other positive financial factor is the propensity to save since there is little else to do during off-duty hours.  A lot depends on the social inclinations and family situation of the expat in question.  The single expat that likes the social scene after work and on weekends would find the KSA scene a chore.  Likewise the Saudi environment is no longer a great place for a married person to bring up/educate children. 
For the expat who is comfortable with compound living, the friendships made within a closely knit expat community can make the Saudi experience a positive one.  I have found the female spouses, with all the Saudi restrictions that apply, to be very special people – they tend to get together with other women and be determined to turn the overall experience into a positive one.

LS:  Do you think it's more difficult to get an American or European to accept assignments in the middle east?  Or, is it not a factor as most who are offered such roles have been there many times as business travelers and so by the time they get an assignment offer - they are not afraid of the location and have no issues with accepting?
JD:  It’s generally easier to attract Europeans with good English skills.  Skilled American workers who have not been in an expat role tend to believe fictional stories about the Middle East and look for higher compensation packages.   
Additionally, it’s just a shorter trip from Europe than from North America – flying home for the weekend is a realistic expectation for the European – and as my good friend, Paul Diggins, says:  “…it is also a lot longer plane ride here from Kankakee than from Kaiserslautern…”.  Recruiters indicate they generally have difficulty getting job offer acceptances from Americans and Europeans when they are misinformed about the region (often) and/or have had a bad experience here (rare).

LS:  We've seen a lot about the Arab Spring's effect on assignments into countries like Egypt and Syria.  An article published by SOS (an emergency evacuation company) indicates there were a record number of evacuations following these events.  Do you think these evacuations were really necessary?  
JD:  Those of us who were in the region during the “Arab Spring” found the coverage by the international press to be abysmal.  The press had the opportunity to investigate the nature of the unrest in a number of nations and educate our friends/families/colleagues in the West about the nuances and cultural differences here and blew it.  They wanted to paint a picture of a wide spread movement of democracy and the ouster of cruel despots – indeed, there was some of this, but each of the situations in the different countries was different and far more complicated. 
Evacuations in Libya and Syria have been necessary given the level of violence in the unrest.  The instability of these populations and governments made the conduct of business impossible and rendered moot the need for employees on the ground.  In other places like Bahrain where I was, the press completely misrepresented what was going on and grossly exaggerated the time and level of violence.   
While there were some evacuations in Bahrain, most of us believe they were generally knee-jerk reactions on the part of a few risk averse companies (and individuals in some cases).  The reality is that expats on the ground know exactly how dangerous things are and the areas they should avoid when they are hot spots.  Bottom line:  evacuations not necessary in large part and somewhat damaging from a business, economic, and employee psyche standpoint.

LS:  What would you say are the biggest challenges that energy companies in particular face in sending assignees into the middle east?  
JD:  The first concern is for the cultural differences.  The oil and gas companies tend to send expats who have been working the fields primarily in North America and the North Sea area.  They do so all too often without first orienting them to the significant changes in local customs, culture, religion, and language.  For many expats this is a much larger leap than they expected and the result is a poor ambassador for his/her home country and company. 
Another challenge is mercurial and unpredictable nature of local companies and their managers when it comes to expat employees and their roles in the organization.  Expats have to understand that “nationalization” takes priority and they will always be treated as temporary workers or visitors.  Multinationals that deploy many of their top people to joint ventures in international locations have to ensure that proper repatriation is incorporated into the career development and succession planning of the global company.  Local ME oil and gas organizations are often joint ventures that include national government entities, multinational professional staff, and high-level local national managers; getting everyone on the same page in this environment can be challenging to say the least.
Many thanks to Mr. Douglass for taking the time to work with me and provide me with these thoughtful answers.