The boom times might be over, but for those FMs who have the requisite skills and are prepared to adapt to the stricter lifestyle rules, there's still eastern promise to be found in the Gulf States, says Nick Martindale.
8 September 2014
With its sun, sea and tax-free salary as selling points, it's easy to imagine why UK FMs might in their idler moments consider upping sticks and heading out to the Middle East.
There is certainly a demand for those with experience in the sector, largely as a result of a shortage of local talent and a rapidly expanding market, which is now having to consider the maintenance of buildings as well as constructing new ones.
"There is a general shortage of high-quality experienced FM talent across the region," says Tim Popplewell, chief operating officer of Transguard Group, who has been based in Dubai for the past four years.
"The UK FM industry has always been highly regarded and people from the UK may have a slight advantage as many of the FM companies here tend to have UK expats in very senior management roles."
The main opportunities are in the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular, he says. "The growth in Dubai is phenomenal, with the hotel, retail, commercial office and residential property markets all very buoyant and the general business mood one of optimism, especially since the award of Expo 2020," he says. "Qatar is also tipped for significant growth with a raft of projects and developments in progress or planned to start, and with the World Cup on the horizon."
But there are signs that some parts of the Middle East are starting to resist the instinct to bring in labour from outside, says Mark Armstrong, FM and environmental manager at recruitment firm Dovetail HRS. "We're seeing in Qatar, for example, that there's a real preference for local talent now and a couple of our clients are now not in a position where they can bring in non-Qataris," he says.
But he, too, says those from the UK are well regarded, and highlights a particular shortage of local talent at account manager level across the region.
"We're seeing a lot more clients saying they need people in these countries, and I know they will have looked locally first," he says. "That says to me that there's not the homegrown talent at that facilities manager or account manager level."
Anyone hoping to land a role - whether in-house or for an FM service provider - will need to demonstrate both qualifications and skills, including excellent all-round soft and hard FM knowledge, contract management skills and the ability to work alongside different cultures, says Popplewell.
"For me, though, those are all skills candidates should have, or be acquiring," he says. "What really sets the good candidates apart is attitude. A real 'can-do' approach to life is essential and traditional FM professionals may need to leave a few of their FM preconceptions at the airport. Things can work a little differently in the Middle East, and candidates with resilience and flexibility are essential. Patience is also essential; things can be slower than one might be used to in the UK."
In some parts of the region, those without degrees cannot be called "managers", points out Armstrong, and he also points to a strong emphasis on previous employers.
"There's a lot of emphasis on who you work for and what clients you work with, so if you've worked or have been a service provider for a big investment bank and have managed a large property portfolio you will be of interest in the Middle East," he says. "They think they're like those clients; they have these fantastic buildings which are very modern and stylish, and they want people who are used to managing those."
From a career perspective, such a move can give people exposure to projects they would be unlikely to come across in the UK, says Bill Heath, managing director of Mace Macro International, who moved out to Dubai to set up the business in 2008, having established the UK organisation six years earlier.
"We work on such a wide variety of projects, from commercial and residential buildings, to a zoo, school campus and government buildings, to a brand new city for two million people, so there is always something new to learn," he says. "The knowledge of FM also varies, which offers us the opportunity to both educate and also learn from a client's past experiences and current needs. Someone's experience would definitely be more varied in the Middle East."
Salaries in the area also vary; those in public sector posts are higher than the private sector, says Darren Angelaki-King, project manager at Serco, based in Abu Dhabi, although all have the benefit of being tax-free. But the cost of living can be high, and there are other factors to consider too in assessing whether the move will stack up on a personal level.
"Consumer goods, housing and travelling costs can be expensive, and being away from home is not for everyone," he says. "Holidays are also rightly geared towards the Muslim calendar and traditional Western holiday periods are often hard to accommodate, with such a high expatriate workforce all wanting to take the same time off."
Salary levels themselves are not quite as high compared with the UK as they once were, says Armstrong, but the tax-free aspect in particular can be an issue if people eventually plan on heading home.
"In the last few roles I have worked on the salaries have been maybe 5 or 10 per cent more than they are here but they are tax-free," he says. "If you're in the 40 per cent tax bracket, suddenly having that knocked off you again comes as quite a shock. My advice is to think very carefully about that, because if you ever want to come back you will have to take a hit."
Linda Engstrom-Condon is head of asset and facilities management consultancy in the Middle East for AECOM, and chairman of the interim UAE BIFM committee. She says there is a dearth of expats with 10 to 15 years' experience, suggesting that those with younger families are less likely to make the move.
"There is a shortage of talent in general, but particularly with regards to slightly younger FM professionals," she says. "I have faced many challenges in trying to recruit both graduate-level FMs and those with 10-15 years' experience. It has been much easier to recruit senior people with 25-plus years' experience."
The main growth areas in FM in the region are the UAE, Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, she adds.
Popplewell, though, believes this is changing, at least in areas such as Dubai.
"A few years back I would have said the opportunities are ideal for relatively young, single people who want to experience working overseas, making some good money and enjoying a great lifestyle," he says. "Although that is still true today, there are now a lot of families here who have made a permanent move to the region. Healthcare and education are excellent, the environment is very safe and the leisure facilities for children are exceptional."
Anyone heading over to the Middle East needs to do so determined to fully embrace the experience, warns Heath.
"My advice would be to fully embrace the different customs during your time here," he says. "There is so much to learn and so many different people to meet, so don't just seek out fellow countrymen."
Yet there are also certain parts of the region where it will be harder to integrate than others - particularly for women.
"Any female FM going over to the Middle East has to be prepared for a bit of a hard ride, particularly if they're hard-services focused," warns Armstrong. "I do know a couple of female FMs who have gone over to the ME and done very well, but you do need to be particularly tough."
Engstrom-Condon also warns against women facing discrimination in places with strict Sharia law.
"I wouldn't encourage women to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," she admits. "But other than that, I have - as an expat woman in my early thirties - always found the Middle East to be very welcoming, and I've never faced any discrimination because of my gender or age in my seven years in the region. Life in the Middle East has many advantages - the fantastic weather during the cooler months, the amazing projects and the local melting pot of the world's different cultures. As long as that is embraced, I can't see that anyone would find moving here very difficult."
Case study - he who dares
Dan Davies had spent a decade working in FM and property in the UK when he decided to head to the Middle East in 2007.
"I was inspired by an article in an internal company magazine produced by Carillion, my company at the time," he recalls.
"It was about the building of the marina development and the monumental task of managing such a big team of immigrant workers.
"Not long after I visited a friend in Dubai on the way to Australia for a holiday, and I relocated about four months later."
Over the past seven years Davies has worked for a number of companies, including Limitless, Omniyat and consultancy firm Olive VFM, and has now moved to Myanmar as associate director at real estate service provider Colliers International.
"It was great for my career," says Davies.
"I went from being an FM for a 400-person office to managing over 12 offices in eight countries, in just 12 months.
"The UK market is very competitive and there are very few large projects for facilities managers to get involved in."
There are a number of opportunities for facilities managers in the Middle East, ranging from in-house roles to working for private developers, government departments or consultancies.
"Dubai is tougher and more competitive due to the desired location but there are some good projects in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait," says Davies.
"I only wish I'd gone sooner."