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What is it like working in the Middle East?

Posted on 5/3/2013 by Primetime Solutions

Each region in the world presents its own challenges, and Saudi Arabia has a unique working culture to which contractors will have to adjust in order to be successful. While it is quite different, most expats find it exciting to work in this new environment. Here are some of the main differences you will notice when working in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic region, where religion is the pivotal point in life, both professionally and personally.

However, South Africans who want to become contractors in Saudi Arabia should not be concerned about language barriers, as everyone speaks English.

Working Hours

For people who are used to working standard 9-5 days, the working hours of the Middle East will be the biggest adjustment. Most corporate companies work 'split days' where the first part of the day starts at 8h00 and ends at 11h00 and the next shift is from 16h30-22h00.  There are male and female banks, with the female banking hours being closer to South African hours of 09h00-15h30. This poses a problem for women who work and want to go to the bank and the mall, as malls are closed for several hours in the afternoon. Additionally, all businesses close for 30 minutes, four times daily for prayer.

Workdays are another adjustment, which will depend on your contract and the company you work for. Weekend days are officially Thursday and Friday, when you will be able to explore the country or spend some private time. During those two days, the country is shut down while the rest of the world remains active. This delays transactions when you are dealing with the outside world.

Living Conditions

Westerners with international recruitment contracts have two types of accommodation in Saudi Arabia, namely compound-style living or renting a home.

Compound living is much like living in the Western world where people have all the modern conveniences they are used to at home and the villas are usually large and comfortable. Here you can live according to Western traditions.

If you live in a home outside a compound, you get to experience the Middle East from the inside. You will have to obey the rules the people live by.

Most companies provide accommodation for their contractors and this will be stipulated in your contract.

Management Style

In Saudi Arabia, the boss makes all the decisions, which are then handed down to management and the subordinates. Companies work along strict hierarchies with managers being strong instructors. The leader will sometimes have a consensus-style meeting before making the final decision. If you are a manager, you should give clear instructions to ensure nothing is left undone.

The boss' position, family position, age and class should be respected too.

Company Structure

Most businesses are family-based. What may seem like nepotism to Westerners, is simply a part of Middle Eastern culture.Therefore, it is important to devote the neccesary time and effort to relationship-building. Everyone is connected, so don't disregard a lowly employee or connection, who may well be a close family member of a senior at the company where you work.


Meetings in the Middle East often seem somewhat unusual to Westerners. Many of the meetings are attended by many people who don't know one another and a lot of time will be spent getting to know one another. Most meetings will seem unstructured without much of a formal agenda and discussions may seem disjointed with many people talking simultaneously.

While these aspects are very different to what you may be used to, it is important to remember that your effective interactions and ability to fit in with the way they do business will determine your employer's opinion of you. Overall, a change is as good as a holiday, so take this opportunity to learn unique new business skills.

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