Working women in the Middle East – what life is really like for a career-driven expat
Rocketing house prices, long commutes and wet weather are encouraging more and more people to consider relocating from the UK to sunnier climes. With year-round sunshine and tax-free salaries, the Middle East has obvious appeal. But moving to the Gulf region isn’t without its challenges. There’s no denying that culturally it’s very different from what you’re probably used to in the UK. But is different necessarily worse?
Lakshmi Anderson was born and raised in Mumbai, settled in Scotland, and has lived and worked in the Gulf region for most of her adult life. We spoke to her about her experiences to see what life is like for a working woman in the Middle East.
- Lakshmi, when did you move to the Middle East?
I moved to Dubai in 1992 after university, and loved it so much I ended up staying for 13 years. In 2005, the time was right for a change, so my husband and I moved to New Zealand. We lived there for a couple of years before moving back to Dubai in 2007, to Scotland in 2009, Bahrain in 2011 and we’ve been living in Kuwait since 2014!
- You keep coming back to the Middle East. What’s the appeal?
The Middle East offers a great lifestyle – excellent work prospects, the ability to save in a tax-free environment, and great weather. I love living and working alongside so many different cultures, sampling the different cuisines, and travelling to places that we wouldn’t be able to get to as easily from the UK.
- How easy has it been for you to find work in the Middle East?
I’m fortunate– I’ve never struggled to find work here. When I first moved to Dubai after university, I came without a job and managed to find one within a few weeks of being here – at the Hilton International.
I’ve never found my options to be limited in the Middle East; I’ve moved between sectors – from hospitality to automotive to finance to motorsports and now recruitment – and held different positions in each.
I’ve held some fantastic roles while I’ve been here. My best and most exciting assignment to date was working in the Chief Executive’s Office at the Bahrain International Circuit, Home of Motorsports in the Middle East. During my time there, I helped host three Formula One Grand Prix races including our 10th Anniversary and first night race in 2014; it was incredible to be involved in something so big. Driving into that beautiful facility each morning was never lost on me, and the sense of euphoria I felt when the chequered flag was raised on race day was like nothing else I have ever experienced. My role was varied, and I came into contact with many different people – I absolutely loved living and working in Bahrain, and it will always have a very special place in my heart.
It’s safe to say that my career in the Middle East has definitely been interesting!
- Is it helpful to refer to “the region” or have you had different experiences in different countries?
A little bit of both. It’s true that there are lots of similarities between the Gulf Coast Countries – they have a shared religion and culture which is very different from life in the UK and India.
But there are subtle differences between the countries, and each place I’ve lived has offered me a unique experience based on my personal circumstances at the time.
- What have you found to be the main differences between working in the Middle East and working in the UK?
As an expat, it’s very important to be mindful of the cultural and traditional norms of the country you’re living in, as these often dictate the way business is done. Business is done at a different pace here, and personal relationships are extremely important.
Although lots of expats don’t make an effort to learn the language, I studied Arabic when I lived in Dubai and I think it really helped earn the respect of my peers; it showed that I was invested in the country, not just there to make money.
I have found the driving to be a challenge (when you get here, you’ll know what I mean!), but it’s something that I ‘ve learned to adapt to.
- How do you think working in the Middle East differs for expat women compared to expat men? Have you ever felt disadvantaged as a woman?
I’ve always worked for large organisations that function on an international platform; perhaps I’d have had a different experience working for other types of companies. But I can honestly say that in all my years of living here, and in all the different countries I’ve worked, I’ve never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage to my career.
- What have been the experiences of the expat wives that you know? Do many work?
Most expat wives I know are working women. Those I know who don’t work have made a deliberate choice not to do so.
- What myths do you hear most often about women working in the Middle East? Is there any truth in them?
A common myth is that it’s not safe for women to work in the Middle East. I think the reverse is true! I think the Middle East offers women a far safer environment than most countries. I’ve always been respected and felt safe as a woman in the workplace.
Obviously common sense and a degree of caution must be exercised, but that’s the same in every country. I definitely feel safer here than I would in either India or the UK.
- Business etiquette is different for women in the Middle East though. Can you give some examples?
Women (and men, in fact) have to dress in an appropriately conservative manner. It’s not uncommon for men to choose not to shake hands with the women, in which case a polite greeting suffices.
I would say then whenever interacting with males in a business environment, you should err on the side of caution and keep communications formal. Avoid asking personal questions until a relationship and level of trust has been built.
- What advice would you give to women considering a move to the Middle East?
Come with an open mind. Embrace the differences which add a unique flavour to life here. Make sure that you’re aware of the rules, regulations and cultural norms of the country you choose to live in. And make an attempt to learn about and integrate with the different cultures in the region.
Most of all, it’s a fantastic opportunity if approached in the right way– make the most of it!