How can GCC construction retain its top talent?

If the GCC’s construction industry is to succeed in retaining the best international talent, policy-makers will need to find ways to offer expat workers long-term security

COMMENT, Business, GCC construction

The GCC’s construction sector has never found it especially difficult to attract top international talent. Whether at a corporate or an individual level, the ambitious projects and generous salaries prevalent in the region have provided sufficient incentive to draw skilled industry professionals from across the planet.

Of course, this situation is cyclical and largely dependent on the Gulf’s economic circumstances. But while it’s fair to say the region has been a harder sell for recruiters in the wake of the 2014 oil price decline, there are still plenty of construction professionals willing to take the plunge and relocate.

The question of retention, however, is altogether more complicated. While the promise of higher wages and a better quality of life may be enough to attract skilled construction professionals initially, not all comers convinced that they should remain in the region.

In this week’s market focus, Barry Prost and Jamie Groom, directors of Bahrain-based recruitment consultancy Propel Consult, offer their combined assessment of the regional construction industry’s ability to attract and retain top talent (page 34). While both men believe there is still sufficient incentive for Western job seekers to come to the Gulf, they warn that some sections of the workforce are moving home in increasing numbers.

Moreover, the duo points out that as the construction markets of countries like the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom pick up, Propel is being asked to identify skilled emigrants that have been working in the Middle East and are willing to return home. Worryingly, the expats who tend to be receptive this message are those whose retention would be most beneficial to our industry.

“This is a concern [for Gulf countries,] especially when it comes to people our age,” Groom explains. “I know families in their 30s and 40s with children that are looking to go back. The younger generation – people in their early- to mid-20s – will probably stay because the money’s so much better. Similarly, people in their 50s may decide to finish their careers in the Middle East to get their money’s worth. But the GCC’s construction sector needs people in their 30s and 40s; these people have more experience than the younger generation, and a good 15 years of their careers left.”

As Prost and Groom explain, there are measures that GCC construction firms can take to encourage these prized employees to stay. Nevertheless, they contend that as regional policy-makers push ahead with taxation and reduced fuel subsidies in a bid to boost national coffers, they must also work to retain skilled expat workers.

Gulf countries have to face facts. In today’s challenging economic climate, the historic benefits that served to attract and retain international professionals – such as subsidised housing and school fees – are becoming fewer and farther between. High salaries and a tax-free environment may be enough to maintain employment levels for now, but the upcoming implementation of value-added tax (VAT) and the oft-predicted introduction of income tax – while no doubt necessary – may begin to erode people’s reasons for remaining in the region.

While there are no simple answers, the prospect of citizenship could go some way to redressing this balance. As Prost puts it: “[The current lack of citizenship] is a big factor in terms of retaining people because, ultimately, [expats] never feel like they really belong in the GCC. And I think that’s important for people generally, that sense of belonging.”

I agree with Prost. Gulf countries don’t have to choose between revenue-generating policies and workforce retention. Providing they introduce measures that incentivise expats to commit their futures to the region, few would begrudge paying into the system.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but if the GCC succeeds in striking the right balance, there’s nothing to stop expat construction professionals – or individuals working in any sector, for that matter – from considering the region as their home for life.

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