Thursday, May 24, 2012

Top 5 Weekend Diversions for Expat Contractors in the Middle East

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Dune bashing is a unique desert safari not to be missed.
Thursday night rolls around and you want to start your weekend off right. (Note to contractors thinking of working here - weekends in the Middle East are typically Friday and Saturday but vary by country.) What of the hundreds of things you could possibly do this weekend will you choose?

Now if you’re a typical Westerner, you’re probably thinking I am mad. Your mental image of the region may include mostly sand dunes, heat and oil fields; all of which are here, but the region has so much to offer when the workweek is done.

Here’s my list of 5 great ways to spend weekend days and nights in Abu Dhabi (and most other modernized cities in the region):

  1. Finish work and head for the pub - In Abu Dhabi there are literally over 100 bars, pubs and snack hangouts. Most of them can be found in hotels or at sporting facilities as they are generally granted licenses to sell alcohol. From English-themed old timey pubs to raucous sports bars to upscale dining to dancing you can find it all here. What’s even better is the fact that there is some much diversity among the expat population, there is a pub to make almost anyone feel like they’re not far from home. A typical night out for a meal and some drinks for two will run you about Dhs300 (EUR65, GBP50, USD80). If you’re a bachelor or bachelorette, halve that. 

  2. Golf - Some of the world’s top golf courses can be found between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In fact, the European PGA Tour season makes a stop at the beginning of the season in Abu Dhabi and culminates in Dubai with the championship. There are tournaments sprinkled in throughout the season as well including a stop in Qatar. The Abu Dhabi municipal course is the most affordable at around Dhs90-119, and the PGA calibre courses will run you almost Dhs700 for a weekend round. (If you’re an avid golfer, it’s worth it: at least once. Although, if you’re a bad golfer it might cause you fits!)

  3. Water sports/beaches - Abu Dhabi and many of the regions modern cities are on the coastline giving easy access to sea related activities. Kite surfing has caught on big here with the steady coastal winds powering enthusiast as long as they can last. Sailing and sail boarding are popular as well for the same reason; there are very few days when the wind isn’t sufficient enough for an amazing time on the water. Deep sea fishing, jet skiing, you name it; you’ll find it in the modernized coastal cities. (A word of caution though; do not wear your beach attire anywhere but the beach. It’s somewhat insulting to wear shorts in public as it is a bikini at a public beach. Ladies, if you prefer to wear western beach attire, it is generally a good idea to get a membership at a private or ladies-only beach club. It is the safest and best bet for women, especially if they are alone.)

  4. Dune bashing - A huge favourite amongst the expat crowd, dune bashing is an adrenaline junkies’ best friend. Hop in a 4WD vehicle and spend half the day playing in the sand adult style.  There are many tour companies that rent out vehicles. Beginners may want to pay a little extra for the tour guide because, if you get stuck in the soft sands of the region, you need to know how to get unstuck. You can also take time out for some sand skiing during your adventure. (Just make sure you have someone to fetch you up from the dune’s bottom unless you enjoy climbing a mountain that moves under your feet with every step.)

  5. Brunch -A Middle East favourite amongst the expat crowd is brunch. This is one’s chance to eat yourself silly and drink the afternoon away; all in a 5-star hotel. Food choices range depending on the hotel. From grilled prawns  and fresh oysters to Middle Eastern to Indian to Japanese and beyond. Some of the most delicious entrees I’ve eaten in my lifetime have been courtesy of a weekend brunch (and some entrees that were not so delicious). The hotels attract chefs and culinary masters from the world over. Prices generally range from Dhs90 (without beverage service) and Dhs225 with house pours included.

I am tired just thinking about it all. Have fun. Be safe. And most of all; enjoy all of the adventures a weekend in the Middle East has to offer. I’d like to invite and encourage my readers to share some of the things you like to do or some of your favourite places to pass your off-time away.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Have Engineering Skills, Will Travel: 5 things to consider before packing your bags for the Middle East

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As we were getting ready to wrap up our global executive conference in the late morning in the US, I found myself anticipating my return to the hot breezes and the bustle of home.

It takes a special mindset to make it in the Middle East
The Middle East is a great place, alive with culture, lucrative opportunities and professional and personal relationships that will last a lifetime. Yet, it takes a special mindset to work and live here. I would not trade the experiences I’ve had here for anything. It is not a lifestyle for everyone.

I look hard at the following five aspects of working in the region when reviewing candidates with my team for placement on engineering projects. If a candidate doesn’t match up well with most or all of these points, although not a scientifically proven fact, it could be a pretty good indicator they will struggle to make it here.

1. Motivations for seeking work in the Middle East
Obviously, the comparatively lucrative nature of working here is a big draw. I often find it is the main draw for many candidates. If it’s just about money, that’s fine. Just know you’ll have to match up with the rest of the list and make sometimes life-altering concessions to your social mindset to be successful.  I have seen many an engineer fill his or her pockets and bank account to the point where retirement 10 years early is possible, although, people who work here successfully are often the type that cannot stay still for long and are looking for the next challenge. Some are attracted by the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of transforming the landscape of a country from the ground up or developing innovative ways to increase untapped reserves. Point being, you must have a strong motivation for coming here to work other than simply needing work.

2. Know your place
One of the largest barriers to success here is not being able to adapt your sense of self to that of a guest in a country. You are here to help contribute to building the country but you are not a citizen, nor do you have the rights of a citizen.  If you are a boisterous leader in full command on projects elsewhere, you will quickly learn that it doesn’t play well in the streets of Baghdad, Dubai or Doha. Officials and organisational leadership here are very respectful of you and your knowledge. You would not be working here if you did not possess the talent to get the job done. In return, they expect the same kind of respect be extended to them. Life can be very difficult and your bags may be packed for you should you forget your place as a guest and if you have a need to always be in control.

3. It’s hot   
I am not a meteorologist. The temperature at this time of year hovers between 40 and 45 ⁰C. The coastal cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha have prevailing winds that sometimes make all the difference, but make no mistake; your body must be able to handle the heat in the summer months. I have seen many heat-related illnesses on jobs here. It is a definite consideration. While it’s not generally humid, on days that it is, it can be stifling. Anyone considering working here needs to be prepared for just how intense the heat can be.

4. Bureaucracy is rampant
For one reason or another, be it the chain of command within domestic organisational structures or the respect and power a particular lineage commands; there are many situations in which the same job or function is lead or handled by more than one person or department. In other words, there are many people in charge of the same thing, and often times, one makes a decision or a ruling that the others are unaware of until it becomes an issue. Streets often have several names. Registering a vehicle can take months. Projects can get stymied in a myriad of redundant paperwork. In the end, bureaucracy, in the modern sense, can sometimes hamper progress and one must be prepared to take on some red tape, have some patience and remind yourself that these modern cities didn’t build themselves and that your project will be built too.

5. Cultural norms
Plain and simple; what is acceptable in one country or culture may not be acceptable in another. This goes both ways in the Middle East. You may see a person being treated in a way that is considered unacceptable in your country but is culturally and religiously acceptable here. You may feel compelled to step in, however, remember the part about knowing your place? You are going to have to learn to ignore situations that you would normally act on at home and sometimes, it can be difficult.  Stepping in is not advisable.

While many women in the engineering industry do work and do very well here; their position, as with men, determines the amount of respect they have on a project. They may sometimes be asked to adhere to certain dress codes in public.

The same goes for the expatriate worker. What is perfectly acceptable in your country may be outlawed here. In some countries smoking and drinking is reviled and illegal. Should your significant other be with you on your journey, in some countries, public displays of affection are shunned or illegal. Many offenses can and will be punished as crimes against the state and result in serious consequences. You will need to be certain that they too are ready for the challenge that lies ahead and are able to adapt and adhere to the guest mindset.

As I reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the region as a company and the people we’ve matched with jobs here, I have found that the candidates that can deal with these and other aspects of working, living and playing in the region are the best candidates to present to my customers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Persian Gulf region has big plans for modernisation. One question…who’s going to do the work?

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The Persian Gulf is in poised to become one of the most incredibly modern regions in the world. Doha is ramping up infrastructure improvements for the World Cup in 2022 and its bid for the 2020 Olympic Games. I just read an article on about how design work has just begun on a metro and light rail project that promises to bring together different parts of Abu Dhabi, arguably one of the region’s most modern cities along with Dubai.

Expansion in Doha, Qatar demands significant engineering resources.
While modernisation brings great promise to the region, it also poses an even larger question: Where are companies and governments going to find the engineers and technical workers to perform the work? And more importantly, what is it going to take to get them to come here?

Having been in the business of finding engineering talent for projects for over 15 years, I must say, the job is not easy but, it can been done successfully.

Let’s first address the pressing question: What makes a candidate right for this type of work?  Europe and Asia are renowned for their rail engineers. However, you have to look at more than a skill set when identifying candidates for projects in the Gulf Region. An engineer may have 30 years of experience on light, high-speed and tunnel rail systems and still might not be the right fit. 

One might pose the question, “How could this not be the perfect person for the job?” The answer is simple. If that same worker has spent all of his or her career in Europe or Asia with little experience travelling the world, the transition can be overwhelming and downright detrimental to a project’s success.  One must really examine each candidate’s personality and mindset before making the commitment to bring them onto a project.     

The next question that arises has to do more with the engineering and technical industry itself. The professionals in our industry have enjoyed great success over their careers, be it in oil and gas, rail, industrial and commercial construction or civil engineering. They are virtually all about to retire over the next five to 10 years with only a handful of younger engineers eager to replace them. We can place experienced professionals on projects anywhere in the world but, what happens when they decide to finally buy a villa in Italy or travel the world for pleasure?

The short answer is to mend your pockets so that they are even deeper. The competition is heated right now and will be even more so in the future. For example, there are railway projects underway or in the planning stages in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, with continued expansion in Singapore. In addition Australia, UK and the USA all have projects targeting infrastructure skill sets needed for these rail projects.

The tougher, more realistic answer is that we need to act now to ensure the supply of talent meets current and future demand.

Training and cross-training engineers from other industries will help in the short term. In the US, after the auto industry nearly collapsed, in conjunction with the local, state and national government grants, industry professionals and area colleges and universities, my company took auto engineers and prepared them for new careers in oil and gas.

An engineer is an engineer.

It takes a specific type of thinking to be an engineer and see the big picture of how everything in a system or process is connected. If you educate and engineer from one industry that may be slowing to the systems and processes in another, the transition will be much faster than training a new engineer how to lead and manage a project.

Long term, one of the only answers is for industry and governments in the region to grow the engineering workforce organically from within.

Curricula focused on long term needs of the region and its modernisation must be formed. Countries in the region must reach out to programs in established modern engineering hubs around the world and develop their own programs. In fact, one might say that true modernisation might only be possible if our region opens its doors to welcome outside influence and culture while lessening some of the tight Visa restrictions on inter-Gulf travel and work. Educators and perspective candidates will be looking to come to the Gulf not based simply on the promise of a lucrative payout but rather, to get in on the ground floor of something much larger. 

In other words, education and fundamental shifts in the way we look at staffing engineering projects are keys to future modernisation in the region. If we stay the current course, modernisation and the benefits of it to the Gulf may be at risk.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

While other countries debate the benefits of rail, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking action.

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Ask most Westerners about Saudi Arabia and they will likely tell you that it is an oil rich country in the Middle East that is mostly arid desert land with a few big cities. Some might even reference the passion for the Kingdom’s football team or the marvel of industrial cities that have been built from the ground up and highlighted in engineering publications and documentaries.

Now, one has cause to believe that any future description of the Kingdom will include thoughts of a country with one of the most sophisticated rail networks in the world.
A recent article in the Arab News by Siraj Wahab takes an in-depth look at the infrastructure improvements being made to the current rail system in Saudi Arabia as well as the new projects underway that will connect eight of the Kingdom’s 13 provinces via a vast network of high-speed lines and a system of tunnels and land bridges by 2015.

(Riyadh) Rail will soon connect the Kingdom.
There are currently five phases of construction on the new network that comprise 7,000 km of track, or about three and two-thirds more track than the current system. The Kingdom’s current system is about 1,500 km long and runs between Riyadh and Dammam on two lines; one for passengers and one for freight. Highlights include:  the Haramain High Speed Rail project that will connect Makkah, Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah and includes more than 500 tunnels; an expansive land bridge slated to connect the existing network with industrial and business centres across the country; incorporation of a recently completed private line; and a phase called the Gulf Cooperation Council Railway Project that will link Kuwait to Ras Al-Khair, Oman and Qatar.

If that’s not enough, the Kingdom is not ruling out the possibility of future lines that connect all of the provinces and even a line that connects to the European network one day.

Aziz M. Al-Hokail, president of the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO), explains the benefits of expansion and the reasons the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah approved the massive spend. Al-Hokail references how rail projects have helped interconnect economies in other countries, spurred growth in the form of cities popping up along the lines and the benefits to both commuters and logistics improvements.

He mentions that one need only look at the US or Taiwan as evidence of the benefits that rail has on an economy. There were once vast expanses of empty land along the rail lines in both countries. Now industrial hubs and suburban areas have grown out of seemingly nowhere, much like towns did along rivers in ancient times. A shipment that once took a week by sea will be made in 12 hours via the new high speed rail network, boosting trade in the country as well.

On all levels, rail in Saudi Arabia looks like a no-brainer.  High-speed lines look to diversify an already robust nation and economy. Soon, private shops and consumer-based micro economies may pop up between industrial cities and grow as well.  

With all of the debate around the rest of the world and bickering between politicians and experts about the benefits of rail versus the costs involved, one might be tempted to look at what the Saudi’s are doing and say the time for talk is over. The jobs it creates, enhancements to trade and quality of life of those around a line, not to mention the cost efficiencies once complete, all make rail a viable option. Some say the current rail project might be late in coming to the Kingdom given the advanced networks around the world. Despite the seemingly late entry into modernization movement, the same people might also be saying that come 2015, Saudi Arabia may be the very model for modernization, thanks to rail. Perhaps it will be a lesson for us all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is a Recent UAE Recruitment Event a Barometer for the Future of Oil and Gas Employment?

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This past year the UAE hosted an unprecedented recruitment event for industry operators. The Energy Recruitment Live Event brought 1,000 industry jobseekers to Dubai. In a region known since the 1960’s as one of the world’s premier oil and gas producers, and a source of equally unprecedented oil and gas engineering talent, holding an event such as this is a sign.  It’s a sign that the global recruitment race has stepped up once again.

Around the same time of the recruitment event,, an industry job board and a benchmark of the industry’s employment climate, reported that 12,500 new jobs were posted to its website, a 60% percent increase  year over year, with a only a 22% rise in overall applications for those positions. 
Fluctuations and volatility in the price of crude are often a signal to young engineering candidates that a career in the oil and gas market is just as volatile. As the price rises, so does the demand for top engineering talent. As the price moves downward, so does production and employment in the industry.

The real problem stems from the fact that relatively flat oil prices from the 1980’s to early 2000’s made technical oil and gas careers much less attractive to engineering students.  Domestic and expatriate engineering talent is aging and production methods are changing, even in large upstream markets like those here in the UAE. In fact, several mining and production programs were disbanded at Universities and Colleges around the world during that period. The results of the 20 year lull are being seen today. There are not enough engineers to readily address the issue of attrition in the technical sector of the industry.  

Add to that the fact, that with rising oil prices, the conversion of shale and tar sands in North America becomes more feasible. The price on land leases in certain cases have increased “10-fold in the past five weeks” as reported by Bloomberg only a month ago. New technologies related to shale conversion activity involving geosciences, IT and undersea technologies are making careers in those regions more attractive to young engineers. This is largely because, should the speculative shale bubble burst, they have skills applicable to other industries as opposed to the rig engineers of yesterday.

Of course the industry still needs rig engineers badly in the short term; however, recent industry white paper suggests the need will decrease by about 14% by 2018. This hardly instills confidence in prospective students to the trade.

An industry educator recently spoke with one of my colleagues and his comments sum up the problem:

“What was taught in schools 20 years ago is not very applicable in today’s hi-tech industry. In countries where new discoveries are being made like Ghana, Angola and Kazakhstan, while the desire is there to enter the industry, the educational resources are not. We’re helping develop educational programs in these areas and connecting developing markets with experts in the industry to improve the quality and quantity of their engineering talent to help balance supply and demand,” states the Chairman of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Talent Council and Professor at London’s Imperial College, Dr. Alain Gringarten.

“In countries where oil is the main industry, everyone wants ‘in’ so finding a number of interested candidates is not a problem. In the Western world, we are competing with lucrative IT careers for young talent. In the UK, it’s the financial sector. When the price per barrel rises, our number of applications for enrollment goes up, when the price goes down, enrollment drops off on a proportionately measurable level. There is a lag in supply and demand of engineering candidates  We’ve mapped the data and the correlation is very strong.”

It’s reasonable to suggest that we are in full “demand mode” for experienced and new petrol industry engineering talent given that we are seeing engineering recruitment events taking place in an area holding about 20% of the world’s reserves.

Recent events spotlighted in the media such as the Iranian embargo and reaction, oil hoarding in Europe and Asia, and the possibility of $5 USD per gallon petrol in the USA also suggest that the race for technical candidates, both new and experienced in the sector, will only get more heated in the future. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Coming Soon

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