Sunday, April 26, 2009

Surviving Saudi Arabia, or the Economic Laws of Expatriate Employment

(Note: This entry was inspired by a speech delivered by Robina Gokongwei-Pe, journalist and entrepreneur, at the commencement exercises of the University of the Philippines-School of Economics, April 25, 2008.)

I have just celebrated my five years in Saudi Arabia, and while this may not be a worthwhile milestone to my seniors who have been here longer, it is also a significant milestone since this is also the longest I have spent with a single company.

Through the ups and downs of my employment here, including my weight and my waistline, the main quality that has allowed me first to endure, then to enjoy, working outside my native land was the value of persistence. So it is said, “Persistence is the twin sister of excellence. One is a matter of quality; the other, a matter of time.”

In persisting against the difficulties of working in a different culture with several other nationalities, the lessons of schooldays past have impressed upon me the unique situation which befalls expatriates in Saudi Arabia.

Given this world climate where institutions among our top corporations and banks have collapsed in the face of recession, I also would like to share these lessons with you, and you can verify it against your basic Economics textbook.

#1 THE LAW OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND – The standard law of economics, it is simple to note that the demand for affordable workers, plus the continuous supply of higher salaries being paid here than in our home countries, have made employment in Saudi Arabia. While this gives us the confidence that we expats will always have a place here, this also means that this demand, while still strong, may not last longer than we think. We have a joke among my colleagues in Human Resources that he who supplies the money can make all the demands.

#2 THEORY OF COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE – This leads us to the second rule – competitive advantage. In order for us to retain the demand for our services, we have to continuously upgrade our own skills, not only in our given profession, but more importantly, in the way we communicate and present our ideas. Being in Toastmasters, among other things, can help us sharpen that edge.

#3 COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS – We all know that there is a labor market out there that is calling out to be filled. However, even if there is sufficient demand, or even if there is competitive advantage, there are built-in costs to changing jobs. For those who recall their choice to work in the Middle East, the transition entails so many sacrifices.

For those who have no families here, being without family is a hardship many cannot endure. For those who do have families here, flexibility is now a premium.

For those who think that they are moving to a better position with higher pay, the uncertainty in this world market gives one very obvious lesson: today you may be in a better position, tomorrow your company may close. Conclusion: if you are in a stable position already and are experiencing sufficient work satisfaction, there is no need to change jobs, no matter how high or attractive the offer may seem.

#4 THEORY OF OPPORTUNITY COST – The next rule is closely allied to the previous one. When considering our careers long-term, we would always consider the packages being offered to us. A better package from another company is an opportunity to make more money, but taking the first offer means we will lose out on better offers that may come along. Or leaving this job means losing the opportunity to be promoted six months down the line.

In the past few years, I have noticed so many people readily switch jobs, going from one company to the other in a virtual criss-cross of the Gulf countries, sometimes not even completing their contracts. One lesson future employers will note here is that this kind of employee cannot be expected to stay. No employer will dare hire a perpetual nomad, because he will think the employee will leave after a while.

This now leads to Rule # 5 or LAW OF DIMINISHING MARGINAL RETURNS – After so many years of moving around, you have gone down in market value, because you have not steadily built a career. You may rake in quick gains, but in the end, your long-term value as a professional will diminish.

Finally, there is rule # 6 or THEORY OF MARKET COMPETITION – Building a career requires a combination of hard work, patience, and oftentimes, just good old-fashioned luck. However successful we may get, we still cannot be too comfortable. We still have to learn new things. We have to face challenges that did not exist in our work environment before. And sometimes, there are just others who will take what we have worked so hard for away from us, fairly or unfairly.

What to do with that? Nothing – it’s just a reality of life. Thriving with competition makes us better competitors – whether at work or in public speaking, or even in talent shows. We compete because this world is based on competition, but at the same time, as long as we are focused on our objective the quick wins are not as important as the long-term victories. We get by as well through cooperation and collaboration.

Surviving in Saudi Arabia is not only for the expatriates, but for the Saudis as well. This is a lesson they can learn from the professionals who have helped build their country.

Persistence, patience, and curiosity – they are among the tools we can use in furthering our careers. Remember, whatever works for you, your career is only one component of your search for happiness. But that is a story for another day, and for those colleagues who have persisted despite the odds, or because of them – congratulations!

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