How to manage the Middle East’s diverse and dynamic workforces

Joe Hepworth | 26 Apr 2023 | Middle East perspective

In a fast-changing region like the Middle East, it’s not surprising that the features of its workforce in 2023 reflect these dynamics. The region is home to a diverse, young, ambitious & educated workforce seeking new opportunities in multiple industries which, coupled with the seismic ‘Vision’ initiatives across most countries, make for a very interesting labour market.

With so many demographic groups represented – approximately 50% of the GCC’s population is expatriate – it’s hard to identify a single persona or typical ‘worker’ in the region, however what tends to unite all these migrants is the desire to seek better job opportunities and higher salaries than might be available in their home locations.

Additionally, the Middle East is home to a large and growing young indigenous population: according to the World Bank, the median age in the Middle East and North Africa is 25 years old.  This youthful tranche is typically well-educated, ambitious and tech-savvy, making them both an essential part of the region’s workforce and also a key challenge for regional governments to ensure that there are sufficient credible employment opportunities.

This expatriate – local balance is a critical issue .  Countries across the GCC all have ‘isation’ policies to encourage and compel localisation of roles according to certain ratios and criteria, whilst also trying to encourage FDI and inward migration of talent, given its obvious economic impact.

The recent growth of schemes across the region that allow for long-term residency – the UAE’s Golden Visa; Premium Residency in Saudi Arabia; Permanent Residency in Qatar etc – are evidence that localisation schemes aren’t mutually exclusive to expat attraction policies, and that both can be espoused simultaneously.

With such a melting pot of cultures, it’s also hard to define a singular management style in the Middle East which obviously varies depending on the industry, company culture, and country. However, many Middle Eastern firms tend to have a hierarchical management structure, with a clear chain of command. This style of management can be challenging for younger workers who are used to more collaborative and inclusive work environments and in recent years, there has been a push for more modern and innovative approaches which encourage collaboration and open communication.

On a related note, in the UAE it’s interesting to see how many companies have returned to the full 5 day per week office presence with quite an obvious division of this being obligatory with many local firms whilst international companies tend to have continued with flexible and hybrid work-from-home policies.

In this dynamic environment, young workers are increasingly looking for job security, professional development and opportunities to advance their careers; they are also looking for companies that prioritize work-life balance and embrace a positive company culture. Additionally, with the rise of social media, many in the Middle East are looking for employers that have a strong online presence and have a positive reputation in the community and on the global stage, and that their credo and values align with the company’s.

This all makes for an interesting challenge for managers in the region.

From my own experiences leading a team of 17 here in Dubai made up of 11 different nationalities (a real UAE microcosm!), I’ve found that staff from all cultures and countries value authenticity, openness and honesty without fail.  In such a multicultural environment, it’s impossible to be all things to all (wo)men so better to focus on a core management approach, where you can be true to yourself and that all staff can identify with, regardless of nationality or background.

This article was first published in Arabian Business on 13th April 2023.