The challenges of working in a remote location in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia – a vast country with a land area equivalent to the UK, France, Spain, Norway and Sweden combined, but like many vast countries, the majority of the population are located in the big cities, such as Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Having operated successfully in Saudi Arabia for almost four years, mobilising more than 25 contracts in that time, UGL Services (DTZ FM company in the kingdom) were understandably delighted when recently awarded a contract to provide fully-integrated facilities management services to three large female technical colleges in the north of Saudi Arabia. That is, until we started to mobilise.
The challenge began with a five week mobilisation window which included the last week in Ramadan and the Eid break. Due to the physical remoteness of each location, we quickly discovered that our usual Tier 1 suppliers were unable or unwilling to support us. Finding local suppliers of an appropriate calibre, proved to be just as difficult.
Providing services for a 100% female student and staff population with its heightened cultural sensitivity associated with working in Saudi Arabia, makes service delivery and meeting the demands of the contract on a day-to-day basis very challenging. To respect cultural sensitivities, services such as deep cleaning, PPM and even basic reactive repairs have to be undertaken outside normal college hours.
Simple things you would normally take for granted, such as stable internet and mobile connectivity, stationary supplies, hired cars and the “same day return flight” for visiting senior managers and support staff, become major logistical challenges and huge time consumers for all involved.
Staffing issues are even more challenging. For starters, it’s difficult to attract and retain staff, as most people simply don’t want to live and work in such a remote location. Additionally, supply chain difficulties has led to the need for a greater amount of local hire, though we found the local workforce lacking in both the required skillset and experience. This often results in a significant amount of training.
Furthermore, the greater majority of candidates from the local market cannot speak English, the common language of the FM industry around the world. Therefore greater emphasis has been placed on translation, both verbal and written, Google translate is used on a daily basis along with training presentations relying heavily on pictograms and videos rather than the spoken word.
Interacting with the community is also an issue, as many locals don’t speak English, unlike in the larger cities. As a result, the most basic services such as shopping or eating out, prove to be quite challenging.
We have also seen issues with isolation amongst our western staff, as employees of different genders aren’t able to communicate face-to-face, due to the cultural sensitivities.
During the day, our male facilities manager can only communicate with his female team by telephone, even though they are only separated by a door or a partition. In turn this means increased emphasis on communication with senior management as much to hear a friendly voice as to deal with actual operational issues.
They say that hindsight is 20:20 vision, and maybe that’s true. We have certainly learnt a lot from this experience, but look on it in a very positive way. We are now fully aware of the problems that both the service provider and the client will face in future, similar locations and are fully equipped to rise to the challenge.
About the author
Michael Moore is operations director at UGL Services, KSA.