Visas & Permits
To live and work in most countries across the Middle East and North Africa, you require residency and work permits. In some countries you will also need a local driving license and should you wish to buy beer, wines and spirits, a liquor permit is required (only granted to non-Muslims). All of these permits will be organised by your employer whose PRO (Public Relations Officer) will manage the process.
Generally there is no cost to you although some employers reclaim visa costs should you leave them before an agreed period.
Housing & Rentals
Although the traditional 'expat' package used to include accommodation, sometimes your remuneration package will include an element meant to cover these costs. Cost and quality of course varies across the region.
While it has not generally been possible for an expat to buy property, in the Gulf in particular, there are now possibilities. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have made developments available, which allow Non-Nationals to buy. In Oman certain specific areas are being prepared for the sales to outside investors (eg. The Wave, Blue City, Seifa).
Healthcare standards across the region are very high. Some of the best hospital facilities in the world are found in the region. Employers in most countries provide private medical cover and you will be issued with a private medical card. This would usually be provided for your dependants too. Sometimes you are required to pay up-front for medical care and re-claim. Appointments with doctors are easy to arrange and each visit incurs a small fee.
Usually you will be paid in local currency and will need a local bank account. This is relatively easy to set up although demands the occasional deep breath when dealing with the bureaucracy so typical of the region. Although the early part of 2009 saw dramatic strengthening of many local currencies, most of which are pegged to the US$ - the exchange rate is generally very stable. All the usual banking facilities are offered (debit cards, credit cards, internet banking, loans, mortgages, etc). However please note that bad debt, bounced cheques, etc are taken very seriously by the authorities and can result in criminal proceedings.
In many countries across the region the official language is Arabic, although of course English or French are generally used in business. Outside the main cities, Arabic is spoken and it would be useful to learn a few basic phrases.
Local education is now provided across the region although levels of literacy in some rural areas are still low. Expat education is provided by a network of high quality private schools. In some countries, these are long-established, in others they are more recent. Curricula vary, often based on the British, American, New Zealand, Canadian, and Australian systems, or increasingly on the International Baccalaureat.
Facilities at such schools are generally of a very high standard and children enjoy a multi-cultural, stimulating school life. Pressure for school places in some cities (eg. Abu Dhabi) is high and it is worth addressing this at an early stage in the recruitment process.
While most business is conducted along Western lines there are of course cultural distinctions.
Generally standards of dress in the Arab world are modest. Thus non-local men would be expected to wear a jacket and tie for meetings - despite the heat - and women are expected to have hem-lines below the knee and shoulders covered. It is regarded as insulting to wear local attire if you are not a local.
Usually the greeting 'Assalam o alaikum' is the preferred opening phrase. Always shake hands with the right hand. Women must wait for a local to offer his hand, non-local men never offer their hand to a local woman. It is usual in the region for meetings to be interrupted by telephone calls. Deals take time, there is plenty of bureaucracy. Patience and respect for local culture is the key.
The region has a robust legal system based on Sharia Law. Sharia Law may be defined as:
'Muslim or Islamic Law, both civil and criminal justice as well as regulating individual conduct both personal and moral.’
It is based on the Koran and the religion of Islam and religious texts are regarded as law.
Although some employers will help you with your moving costs, you should expect to organise this yourself. There are plenty of international moving companies and generally the system is efficient. You should allow up to 3 months to ship your personal effects although it can take as little as 1 month.
Travel & Leisure
The Middle East and North Africa offer a winning combination of the ancient and the new. The great explorers of an earlier age discovered extraordinary historic sites - 65 of UNESCO's world heritage sites are in the Arab States alone. However, it is not all crumbling, biblical remains.
Dubai, of course is packed with new, shiny hotels and resorts offering astonishing luxury and leisure. Much the same is true of Abu Dhabi. Both cities offer extravaganzas like indoor ski slopes. Oman offers more discreet delights and North Africa is famous for its souks, cities and mountains.
In a region where the heat drives everyone inside during the summer months, the range of indoor activities is dizzying from go karting to shooting, from ice skating to cinema, from water parks to skiing. In the cooler winter months, pursuits such as water sports and yachting are very popular as well as camping in remote locations or just hanging out on the beach.
And of course the shopping malls are to be seen to be believed…
Culture & Religion
Islam is the official religion across the region although most countries tolerate other religions. It is important to respect Muslims and Islam and accept that it permeates all elements of society. Meetings should be scheduled around on awareness of prayer times. It should be noted that every year, during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset and business hours are reduced. Women should always carry a headscarf since in certain situations hair should be covered. The Islamic calendar offers social holidays but these are based on the Lunar year and vary.
Key holidays are:
- Islamic New Year
- Prophet Mohammed's Birthday
- Eid al Fitr (end of Ramadan)
- Eid al Adha (feast of Sacrifice)
Neither alcohol nor pork are consumed by Muslims.