‘All roads lead to Saudi Arabia’: Gigaprojects spark construction recruitment drive

Digital rendering of how 'The Bow' at Neom's Trojena mountain destination will look Digital rendering of how ‘The Bow’ at Neom’s Trojena mountain destination will look (Image: Webuild)

A dam, shaped like the prow of a ship, suspended above the valley below. An underground canal leading to a resort built into a 450m-high mountain range. A 170km-long linear city in the desert.

These are just some of the projects that illustrate the scale of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious construction programme as the Kingdom aims to affect a transformation at breakneck speed to diversify its economy under its Vision 2030 project.

Saudi Arabia has already announced multiple billion-dollar construction projects – many in the $500 billion Neom special economic zone but plenty more outside (see this article for more details).

Many still sit on the drawing board and there’s a question mark as to whether all of them will ultimately get built.

A rendering of The Line, with its mirrored walls running from the coast into the desert A rendering of The Line (Image courtesy of NEOM)

But elsewhere, work on huge projects like The Line in Neom has already started. Last month, Italian contractor Webuild won a $4.7 billion deal to build three dams to form a freshwater lake for a ski resort at Neom’s Trojena mountain destination. And in December last year, AtkinsRéalis won a deal to masterplan New Murabba, ‘the world’s largest downtown’ in the Kingdom’s capital Riyadh. At its heart will sit the proposed 400m tall, 400m wide Mukaab (meaning ‘cube’ in Arabic), which would be one of the largest built structures in the world.

The demand for skilled construction professionals in all sorts of different roles has the potential to be enormous.

Already, the likes of US contractor Bechtel are sitting up and taking notice. The company, which has had a presence in the Kingdom for 80 years and is already involved in several significant projects, announced late last year that it would open a new regional headquarters in Riyadh.

Meanwhile, the number of internet searches in the UK for construction jobs in Saudi Arabia reportedly surged by 293% year on year in summer last year, according to the Rated People website, suggesting more competition for already scarce skilled workers.

‘All roads lead to Saudi Arabia’

“All roads seemingly lead to Saudi Arabia at the moment,” says Harry Simmonds, director at Ping International Recruitment, based in the UK.

Digital render of the planned new Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Stadium in Saudi Arabia (Image: Populous) Digital render of the planned new Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Stadium in Saudi Arabia (Image: Populous)

Higher-level professional roles like project managers and project directors, consulting engineers, contract managers, and cost consultants and quantity surveyors all appear to be in demand.

“We had actually moved away from Middle Eastern markets when Qatar slowed down because there wasn’t an awful lot of work going on. But in the past six months, we have returned to Saudi purely because our clients have asked us to help,” Simmonds says.

“Everyone seems to be doing something in Saudi Arabia and from a contracting standpoint, projects are now really starting to take off. The main contractors are getting their teeth in and demand for certain professionals in the Kingdom in the moment is like nothing I have ever seen.”

It’s a view shared by Jonathan Beech, director at construction recruitment specialist Redfish Solutions. “I was in Saudi Arabia towards the end of last year with a client and the market is really picking up in terms of sheer workload because some of the big developments are entering the construction phase,” he says.

“There’s a lack of talent in the local market, especially after Covid-19 meant that a lot of people couldn’t go home to see their families for nine months.”

To plug the gap, companies in Saudi Arabia looked to experienced professionals in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but now they are starting to open up the doors to people from outside of the region, Beech says.

“Typically, 18 months ago you probably wouldn’t have got someone in a Saudi job unless they had worked in the Middle East before,” adds Simmonds. “But now it seems that if they have the qualifications for end client approval, then it’s not so much of an issue.”

Main attractions to working in Saudi

And for certain expat construction professionals, there are strong draws to working in Saudi Arabia.

A visual of the Mukaab in the New Murabba downtown area A visual of the Mukaab in the New Murabba downtown area (Image courtesy of Saudia Arabia PIF)

Beech boils those down to three main considerations: First of all, there is the sense of adventure of working in a country undertaking some of the most exciting and ambitious construction projects anywhere in the world; For some, there’s also the cultural and religious draw of Saudi Arabia. Mecca is the most important place in the Islamic religion as the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and nearby Medina holds significance was the place where the Prophet was exiled and later laid to rest. “If we advertise a role in Mecca and Medina then a lot of people apply because it is holy land to them,” he says; But the third consideration is the biggest, and that’s the money.

“Money is the primary motivator. Tax-free salaries tend to be about 30% more than UK salaries, maybe more,” says Beech.

“In London, salaries can be quite competitive compared to the Middle East. But if you are a project manager in the north east of England earning £45,000-£50,000 a year (US$56,845-$63,162) and there’s someone offering you £10,000 a month (US$12,632) to go out to Saudi Arabia, with some of the projects also providing accommodation, then why wouldn’t you do it?”

For his part, Simmonds estimates that for roles in Saudi cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, salaries are typically 10-15% higher than they are in the UAE. But for more remote postings like Neom or on the Kingdom’s coast, then salaries would be similar but with accommodation, flights, insurance and sometimes even food included.

Obstacles to recruitment of expats

Despite the growing demand, however, that is not to say that recruiting expat construction professionals to Saudi Arabia is necessarily simple or easy.

Digital render of how Aquellum could look Digital render of how Aquellum could look (Image: Neom)

For a start, Saudi Arabian companies have to be able to fulfil quotas to show that they are employing a certain proportion of Saudi nationals, part of a policy known as ‘Saudization’. That can place a ceiling on how many foreign nationals can be brought in on a particular construction project.

It is partly for that reason that some major foreign companies have engaged in programmes to recruit more Saudis into construction. Bechtel, for example, has entered into a partnership to promote construction careers to women in the Kingdom.

The recruitment process for expats can also be long and drawn out, often involving end client approval.

Simmonds estimates that the process to apply for a visa to work in Saudi Arabia can take around eight weeks, while officials are stringent when it comes to attesting and legalising any official documents like degree qualifications.

“The onboarding process can be slow,” says Beech. “It is not uncommon for you to interview someone today and see them finally onboard six months later or even longer.”

Challenges involve finding a slot for the project client to interview the candidate if they are busy, getting paperwork signed off, delays in checking criminal records in the candidates’ home country and so on.

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And Beech points out to would-be candidates that they have to be degree-educated and even then employers in Saudi can be very discerning about who they want working on their projects. “If you are looking to go out there, then work for a major international name – someone like an Aecom or a Bechtel – that is known in Saudi Arabia. It also helps to have worked on a major project that they will recognize like The Shard [in London].” Candidates who don’t have that level of recognition on their CV are much less likely to be successful, he suggests.

Culture shock

Candidates also need to be aware of just how different an experience working in Saudi Arabia, which operates under Shari’a law, can be.

The Great Arch within the mountains of Jeddah in the Tabuk region of Saudi Arabia The Great Arch within the mountains of Jeddah in the Tabuk region of Saudi Arabia (Image: almozinisaleh via AdobeStock - stock.adobe.com)

First of all, some site locations are a long way from cities. “A lot of the work we are receiving at the moment is for Neom, which includes areas like The Line, the port, and the airports,” says Simmonds. “They are extremely remote. Camps are essentially air-conditioned containers with limited facilities and the culture shock for someone who hasn’t worked overseas is quite significant,” he says.

“It is quite expensive to live in Saudi and supply and demand for housing with the influx of foreigners is getting quite costly. Someone said the other day they had paid £10 (US$12.60) for a box of cereal” adds Victoria Ricketts, director of construction and engineering recruitment specialist Stafford Lawrence.

Stafford Lawrence has produced a blog post offering advice to candidates looking at working in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, based on experience gleaned over the 20 years that the company recruits to the region.

Among points it notes are the fact that it is still illegal for unmarried couples to live together in the Kingdom, although it points to improvements over recent years such as women now being allowed to drive and being welcomed in engineering and construction roles.

The company says it has placed several women recently into roles in the country.

It’s not necessarily a location that will work for everyone and construction professionals considering a move would be well advised to go in with their eyes open, as well as enlisting the help of reputable recruitment specialists placing opportunities with recognised names in the construction sector. But some expats do appear to flourish in their new surroundings.

Beech concludes, “I spoke to someone who has gone out there after working in some big-name consultancies and he absolutely loves it. He said it’s really nice, the restaurant scene is good, he goes cycling at the weekend. And he earns £10,000 a month (US$12,632) tax free. Anywhere else in the world that wouldn’t happen but there it does.”

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Ollie Hodges Publisher Tel: +44 (0)1892 786253 E-mail: [email protected]
Lewis Tyler
Lewis Tyler Editor Tel: 44 (0)1892 786285 E-mail: [email protected]