The evolution of HR in the Middle East

  • March 16, 2018

Katie Black joined McGregor Boyall’s HR and Talent Management Recruitment Practice in 2017,and is focused on hiring top HR talent across the Middle East and UK.

I will always look back fondly at the 5 years I spent hiring top HR talent into roles across the Middle East.  If it wasn’t for a change in personal circumstances, I would still be enjoying Dubai’s sun, sea and sand… I mean, what’s not to love?!  Having recently relocated back to the UK, many people ask me what it’s like to work in the Middle East, and what the potential challenges might be for someone exploring a career in HR.  Personally, my time spent in Dubai was the best 5 years of my career, and I would recommend the opportunity for anyone looking to expand their cultural horizons and add another perspective to their HR career!  It’s no secret however, that the economy in the Middle East is evolving, so this article will discuss the potential challenges of building a HR career in Dubai and its surrounds, as well as how to make the transition work in times of change.


Expo 2020 Dubai is on the horizon, a global event designed to celebrate human ingenuity by sharing knowledge, driving innovation, promoting progress and encouraging collaboration.  With the expo drawing near, companies in the Middle East are exploring how to harness this movement and attract top talent to their region.  From my experience, there is no doubt that the Middle East is hungry for professionals who can bring their expertise to the region.  So now the question is: how can the Middle East competitively attract talent?


Historically, the Middle East offered tax-free packages with large expat benefits, including education and housing allowances – it’s these enticing offerings that helped their economy to attract talent to the region.  Over more recent time however, more and more companies have been reducing these benefits, which together with the introduction of VAT in 2018, will likely add further expense to the cost of living, and put strain on the ability for the Middle East to attract top talent.

Adding further challenge, is the ease of mismatch between client and candidate expectations.  In my experience, the Middle East’s HR market is fierce, and clients are being more demanding and specific in the terms of their requirements.  Clients are seeking individuals with people and business focused degrees from top Western institutions, with strong and stable CVs within the top global organisations where they have also demonstrated exposure to Best Practice HR.

The other side of the challenge is that HR functions in the Middle East have been less advanced than those in the West, with the scope of the roles not seen as interesting or challenging as roles they can get elsewhere.  The HR roles in the Middle East have tended to focus on tactical aspects as opposed to being strategic, thus presenting the challenge to simultaneously fulfil both candidate and client needs.  Amidst the challenge however, great potential (and attraction!) lies in the Middle East as organisations themselves are evolving, and in doing so, creating the space for more senior HR leaders to make a tangible and commercial impact within business.

A Balancing Act

In addition to managing client-candidate expectations is the balancing act between retaining existing HR expats in the region versus attracting new HR talent.  On the one hand, Middle Eastern organisations have preferred retaining HR expats because they possess regional experience and are accustomed to the local industry.  On the other hand, there has been a shift in perspective, opening up positions to new HR talent looking to relocate to the Middle East.  The catch for new HR talent has been a slightly lower reward package compared to their experienced counterparts, however the opportunity to relocate and add another dimension to their HR career is clear.  This is an important consideration to have when relocating to the Middle East, as an imbalance between client and candidate remuneration packages can frustrate existing challenges.

A Bright Future

Candidates from industries including financial and professional services as well as management consultancies are few and far between in the Middle East.  These sectors therefore look to attract high proportions of expats into their organisations and have the ability to offer the financial incentives to do so successfully, thus striking the balance between client and candidate expectations around remuneration. With that in mind, the Middle East remains an attractive market that offers great career opportunity at a time when the HR market is still transforming.

Overall, there are a number of challenges to attracting and retaining top HR talent in the Middle East, but with the market evolving and roles becoming more commercial, there are many opportunities for ambitious HR professionals to make an impact and expand their HR horizons, and despite a reduction in financial appeal, the Middle East remains a location for interesting and compelling HR work.