The Gulf region has witnessed remarkable growth and development in recent years. With their strategic location, abundant natural resources, and ambitious economic diversification plans, GCC countries have become attractive destinations for entrepreneurs, businesses and investors.
Each government has a specific plan, but the sheer number of initiatives currently underway – from Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, to the Qatar National Vision 2030, and the We The UAE 2031 project – signal a region on the move.
Largely avoiding the global slowdown, the GCC economy is expected to grow by 2.5% in 2023 and 3.2% in 2024. Meanwhile, the move away from oil reliance continues – the UAE’s non-oil sector accounted for 70% of its GDP in 2021, while in Saudi Arabia the goal is to create over a million non-oil sector jobs over the next two years.
All of which comes together to make the GCC a very attractive place for expats.
GCC – population overview
The population of the GCC region is growing fast. It has nearly doubled over the past two decades – going from 26 million in 1995 to 56 million in 2021, according to the ISI World Statistics Congress. Currently, expats make up around half of the total GCC population.
While the current net migration rate for UAE is down from last year (possibly due to a hold-over from the pandemic slow-down), it’s likely that this number will increase. And even if we just take Dubai alone, it’s suggested that the current population of 3.5 million will increase to 5.8 million by 2040.
Looking at UAE expats by nationality, India leads with 2.8 million, Pakistan is at 1.3 million, and both Bangladesh and the Philippines also feature in the top five. It’s estimated that around half a million Western expats live in the UAE, making up around 5% of the total population.
Why is the GCC attractive to expats?
Globally, GCC countries occupy five of the top 10 places where expatriates find it easiest to settle, according to a new report from InterNations. The survey focused on four key categories: digital life, housing affordability, administrative affairs, and language barriers.
- Lifestyle: The UAE scored highly for ease of administration, with well over half of respondents saying bureaucracy was easy for them to navigate. The UAE also came in first place for ease of obtaining a residence permit. Beyond that, it’s often noted that day-to-day life in the GCC is just that much easier and more convenient. It’s also often noted that the cities are well-planned, facilitating ease of movement and creating environments that offer great convenience when it comes to living and working.
- Education: There are schools ranking systems in countries such as the UAE that help parents choose the right place for their children. Knowing the school has been validated and inspected by the government adds that extra level of confidence. Considerable private investment into UAE schools is underway, with the UAE ranking third in the world for this kind of investment).
- Healthcare: Not only is the UAE a growing market for medical tourism, expats who live here also mention the high levels of care they receive. During the pandemic, governments across the region demonstrated an effective public health approach, and they continue to shift their healthcare ecosystems from curative to preventive care. The goal is to create integrated healthcare delivery that focuses on enhancing treatment outcomes while lowering costs.
- Ease of setting up a business: If you’re interested in starting your own business, the UAE has everything in place to make the process easy. You can be up and running in a very short period of time with the necessary licenses, visas and corporate bank accounts.
The challenges that expats face
Alongside getting used to a new country and new culture, there are a few areas expats should be thinking about when planning their move.
- In the UAE, finding affordable housing poses some challenges. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi rank among the more expensive cities to live in globally. That being said, UAE employers are taking note of this and adapting their remuneration packages accordingly.
- Understandably, there is an emphasis on the localisation of the private sector workforce in many GCC countries – also known as ‘Saudisation’ or ‘Emiratisation’ in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively. In the end, the governments of these countries want to find the right balance between the need for job creation for local people and the opportunity for businesses to bring in the best global talent.
The opportunities for expats
Let’s look at some key areas that expats might consider when it comes to jobs in the GCC.
- Tech: This is a key area for expats in the GCC. With a growing need for software developers, cybersecurity experts and data analysts, the focus on tech is both part of the move towards greater sustainability, as well as an addition to traditional sectors such as banking and finance (notably, there is a growing fintech sector in the UAE).
- Digital health: The GCC already has some of the highest smartphone penetration in the world. Given that consumers are already comfortable using a variety of digital services, the move to greater digitalisation in healthcare will mean further opportunities for skilled workers.
- Healthcare: Healthcare more generally is growing at pace. The global shortage of doctors and nurses is certainly present in the Gulf, with the vast majority of practitioners made up of expats. There is a push, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to attract and retain more healthcare professionals – and immigration laws have been reformed to this end.
- Finance: With the highest rate of salary increase in any sector in 2022, banking and finance continues to attract expats, with an expected 50% increase in job vacancies this year in the sector.
- Sustainability: This covers many different sectors – perhaps all sectors – but there is an increase in roles connected to ESG as the GCC countries adapt current cities and build new smart ones. With stated aims to become environmental world leaders over the coming decades, and with the UAE hosting COP28 later this year, the sustainability push looks set to grow and grow, offering many opportunities for expats looking to work in the Gulf.
As we have seen, the GCC offers expats diverse opportunities across almost all sectors. With economies that often manage to bypass global slowdowns, paired with modern infrastructure and an attractive lifestyle, it’s not surprising that it often tops the most popular regions for expats to relocate.
And while clearly the business incentives are there, countries such as the UAE are well set up for the entire family, offering world-class healthcare, schools and leisure activities. Whether we’re talking about population or the economy itself, the region is growing and won’t be slowing down anytime soon.