Job opportunities in the UAE

With an abundance of ambitious engineering projects from renewable energy to skyscrapers, the United Arab Emirates is looking for skilled recruits in the coming years

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the Middle East’s most important economic forces, has undergone a spectacular transformation. Since 1962, when Abu Dhabi became the first of the Emirates to export oil, the region has grown from a quiet backwater to a fast-moving hub of activity.

With expatriates from over 150 countries making up 85 per cent of the country’s population, the UAE is leading the rest of the world in net migration. While it was the oil industry that first attracted foreign workers to the region, an aggressive strategy of diversification has created a range of opportunities for engineers in areas such as construction and energy.

Each of its states- Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain– has its own strengths. Dubai, for instance has set itself up to be the cosmopolitan gateway of the Middle East. The credit boom, coupled with changes in the laws of foreign ownership, allowed ambitious projects such as the Burj Khalifa- the world’s tallest man-made structure- to be realised during a period of frantic activity and investment.

This activity was short-lived when the construction market in Dubai crashed dramatically following the 2007 global financial crisis. But the past two years have seen resurgence in investor confidence. Gurminder Sagoo, head of Middle East business development at engineering consultants, WSP, believes the announcement of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in neighbouring Qatar has been an important catalyst in resurrecting the industry. 

Concentrating solar power electricity plants are among the engineering projects in Abu Dhabi

‘The region here is quite interesting because it is a bit of a showcase,’ he said. ‘Everyone wants to have the best projects and the best city. With activity ramping up in Qatar you saw some developers in Dubai starting to revitalise the projects that came to an end in 2008…The trend for engineering consultancies, particularly those that are British and American, has been to use the market in Qatar to start recruiting and increasing resources in the UAE.’

A recent survey by jobs board Naukri Gulf suggests that more than half of recruiters in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are expecting to hire in the coming quarter. The gap between demand and supply for skilled workers is a major issue with employers finding it most difficult to hire talent at the 4-8 years’ experience level. While current demand is being driven from neighbouring countries, the UAE is beginning to revitalise its talent pool for projects in 2013.

‘From a career perspective it is probably the only place where you will go from the ridiculous to the sublime in terms of the types of projects you could be working on,’ said Sagoo. ‘Something like the Shard comes up once in a blue moon in the UK. As a construction engineer in the UAE, the chances are you will get to work on two, if not, three iconic projects. That is what is exciting about it out here, the bizarreness of what you could be working on at quite a young age.’

‘From a career perspective it is probably the only place where you will go from the ridiculous to the sublime in terms of the types of projects you could be working on

Gurminder Sagoo, WSP

Opportunities for engineers in the UAE are also increasingly found in the power generation, transmission and distribution sector.  Historically the majority of the power capacity in the region has come from natural gas and crude oil fired plants. With rising crude prices on the global energy markets, the region has been attempting to diversify its energy mix. The UAE is leading the development of nuclear power in the area, with plans to build four reactors at a cost of $20bn.

According to recent figures by the Saudi-based Arab Petroleum Investment Corp (Apicorp) the region needs to pump nearly $107bn into energy projects over the next five years. With its natural suitability to solar power, projects such as the Masdar 100MW Shams 1 solar project in Abu Dhabi have already driven renewable energy expertise into the area. Further projects are in the pipeline, with Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) announcing plans for a 1,000MW solar power plant.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010, is currently the world’s tallest manmade structure

For both the construction and energy sectors, western-educated engineers are in high demand. But as Jon Lauriston, senior consultant in engineering at Morgan McKinley warns, apprenticeships are not valued as highly as they are in the UK. Masters degrees tend to have more weight with employers, as do engineers who are business-minded and work well under pressure. In return, engineers can expect, on average, a 150 per cent increase in the salary package. According to Lauriston, in terms of cash in hand, engineers are around twice as well off as they are in the UK. 

“There are probably 20 projects larger than the Olympics in Britain going on in each country in GCC

Gurminder Sagoo

‘The biggest mistake people make is that they don’t really do any research on the region they are looking to live and work in,’ said Lauriston. ‘People look at the Middle East as one and the same. Parts of UAE feel very Western so you don’t really miss anything from home, but there are regions that are not like that. Another misconception is that people still think it’s ridiculously expensive out here, but it’s not. You can get property for around half the price you did in 2008…it really is a great time to be out here. There are probably 20 projects larger than the Olympics in Britain going on in each country in GCC.’

Overall, the UAE economy is thought to have grown by four per cent this year. ‘People always say that growth this time will be a lot more sustainable, that development will not get as crazy as it did in the times before 2008,’ said Sagoo. ‘Unfortunately, in reality, when times are good people forget the bad times and chase the money. That is natural- the minute that pattern happens, the rate of growth means jobs may not last as long.’

But, added Sagoo, while jobs in the UAE may be largely short to medium-term, the region can provide unrivalled opportunities for engineers. ‘I’ve seen a lot of engineers come here and do quite well because they love a challenge. They live a good lifestyle, the weather’s great, they drive a nice car and they work on nice projects…if you wanted to move to the UAE, now is as good a time as any to do it.’