What’s it like as a working expat mum in the Middle East?

Ever fancied relocating your family somewhere more exotic? Read what it’s like as a working expat mum in the Middle East – and how to make a success of a working family relocation.

Janet Graham first moved to the Middle East in 1985 with her husband and two children. After becoming bored of the expat wife lifestyle, she decided to relaunch her career over there. Today she is the HR Manager for Crown Worldwide in Dubai.

Janet shares her experience as a working mum in the Middle East, and advice for other women considering following in her footsteps.

How did you end up working in the Middle East?

I am currently in Dubai and I have been here a long time and seen a lot of changes! Originally from North Yorkshire in the UK, I arrived in the UAE in 1985 as an accompanying spouse with two small children, into what at the time was a hardship location.

It took me less than six months to recognise that if it was to be a successful assignment for myself and the family I needed to find employment, rather than spend the time at coffee mornings and bowling leagues. I have worked across the Middle East region since then.

Where else have you lived and worked?

My home base since 1985 has always been Dubai however I have had the opportunity to travel to many Middle East locations some of which are not seen as ideal locations for or accepting of women, including  Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. I have also travelled for business extensively across the globe.

How have your international assignments helped in your current role or your bigger career path?

Being able to travel and work in locations that are culturally diverse and sometimes closed societies has given me an insight into how women are perceived in these societies.

Having spent most of my working life in the Middle East the regional culture has become almost second nature to me and I am able to use this to adapt my approach or response to a situation – whether to take the lead or take a supporting role, recognising some of the non-verbal messages.

I have never seen the fact that I am female as detracting from my ability to do my job. On the contrary it has, on occasions been an advantage.

What kind of experience do you have and in which industries?

I have worked in local government organisations, Oil and Gas, Energy and Global Mobility providers – very different industry sectors – but each has provided me with experiences and learning that I may have missed out on had I not become an expatriate or global citizen.

The greater part of my career has been involved in some way with supporting, counselling and guiding both companies and individuals in mobilising into the region. Having had the experience myself of relocating into a hardship environment I am able to provide the support to assignees and their families to recognise the challenges, both good and bad.

It is typically harder for the accompanying spouse who sometimes has to leave their own career, or retrain to enable him/her to enter into the new location. In my current company one of our businesses, Crown Relocations provides a  lot of help for people moving abroad; and I can give a personal insight in how women can enter into the workforce, retrain and adapt to their new environment.

What’s special about working in the Middle East?

The UAE and Dubai in particular is a melting pot of many cultures – in the region of 200 – all coming together. It’s a place where the diversity of cultures is present every day and everywhere around you. Every office and business has a cultural mix that gives you diverse opportunities and connections you may not experience in other locations.

Taking the time to learn about the people you are working with – learning about their background, their challenges – and being there for them is life-enhancing. I am proud to be able to say that I have colleagues and contacts across the world, people I have worked with, for, or connected with through business – giving me a truly global contacts book.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman abroad?

I’d say overcoming the misconception that women cannot travel or work in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq. The working practices in these countries is very different to the western understanding – however both local and foreign women can and do work. You need to be open-minded and accepting of difference.

It did take me a long time to get an approval for my first travel visa to Saudi Arabia, as being a woman you need to be in specific work categories to travel into the Kingdom. But patience and a determination to succeed meant a positive result.

Business in the region is built very much on trust and respect and takes time. Sometimes as a woman it can take longer to develop the relationship and you need to work that bit harder – but once the trust is there it is there for life.

Have you ever been treated differently because you are a woman?

Personally I cannot really recall any major challenges in my career that I could attribute to being a woman. Only one minor incident stays in my mind – from many, many years ago, when the Mullah from one of the mosques refused to shake my hand, which was confusing to me as he had shook my hand the previous week.

I could only assume that on the occasion he refused to shake my hand I was with a male colleague.
An area that is prevalent in many GCC countries is the ‘Ladies Only sections’ or ‘Ladies only Day’ in government departments, banks, parks, public transport, which is something that I take full advantage of, certainly when it comes to queuing for services!

I have on several occasions been invited to the Majlis – where I felt honoured, as a woman to be invited. This for me was a sign of respect and trust for me to be invited as this is typically a male domain in the Middle Eastern culture.

What tips do you have to help other women adapt or succeed on an assignment?

Always be true to yourself, understand your limitations, understand the risks but never stop looking for the opportunities to succeed that can take you to the next level.

Enjoy the experiences as each one contributes to your personal growth and development and your ultimate success in your career. I believe that if you think you will have issues or challenges as a female assignee – then you will.

Think positively!
 There’s lots of help available, too. Large multi-national companies these days provide spousal support and career support for dual career couples, for instance.

Why do you think there are still far fewer women working abroad on assignments than men?

Perhaps there is still the misconception in some areas that women will want to take a career break when children come along and the ROI will be lessened. But I’d have no hesitation in encouraging women to expand their horizons and try it.

What would your advice be to women who are considering working abroad, especially in the Middle East?

There is a whole world out there and great opportunities for women who are willing to take the risk into the unknown and turn it into a positive experience. Success is down to the individual and you cannot rely on the business to provide you with the success.

Janet works for Crown Relocations, a division of Crown Worldwide. Crown Relocations operates from more than 200 locations in almost 60 countries, providing end-to-end relocation and settling-in services for families on the move. Customers include employees of multi-national and government organisations, diplomats and private individuals.