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Can the MENA attract cross-border talent in an era of remote work?

In a globalised world, talent mobility is a growing trend, facilitating access to diverse skills and cutting labour costs.

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Talent mobility addresses global shortages, valued by 88% of employers.
Remote cross-border work broadens talent pools but faces scepticism, especially for senior roles.
MENA lags in remote work adoption, emphasizing face-to-face interactions and tech challenges.

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In a globalised world – where borders blur and skills shortages abound – it comes as little surprise that talent mobility is an accelerating trend.  

Hiring internationally gives organisations access to a wider range of highly skilled individuals with diverse knowledge and perspectives. It broadens outlooks and fosters cultural exchange. In some regions, it can also cut labour cost substantially. 

Publishing its inaugural Mobility Reimagined Survey in 2023, EY found that: 

– 88% of employers believe mobility can help address global talent shortages, and 

– 93% of employees view such opportunities as “life-changing”, allowing them to build valuable skills and connections. 

For candidates loathe to move abroad, an added dimension has come to the fore in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic: the rise of remote cross-border working. This opens the broadest-possible talent pool for businesses without the challenges of physical relocation; but it must be underpinned by robust IT infrastructure and HR processes. 

So far, employers aren’t convinced that remote work is an adequate alternative to cross-border travel. EY’s 2024 findings show that just 41% of employers think hybrid mobility can replace physical movements of employees, and 49% believe it doesn’t offer the same level of learning – for senior professionals especially.  

Ambitious development projects 

However, in a competitive market, a failure to move with the times could disadvantage the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); the region has been slower to adopt remote and flexible working, placing a stronger emphasis on traditional, face-to-face interactions. In some areas, tech infrastructure may also be a limiting factor. 

Recognising this, pioneering companies in Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) – such as Emirates Group and Saudi Aramco – have been proactively investing in tech and hiring remotely, particularly in digital roles. There have also been efforts to streamline recruitment and onboarding processes and offer more flexible working arrangements.  

Talent professionals predict more remote opportunities going forward; these will be “complemented by a rise in hybrid models, where professionals may travel to the region for short-term projects or training, enhancing talent mobility without long-term commitments,” according to one commentator we surveyed. 

After all, the MENA thirsts for international talent to support its ambitious economic development and diversification plans – from Saudia Arabia’s Vision 2030 (“a blueprint to unlock the potential of its people and create a diversified, innovative, and world-leading nation”) to the UAE’s drive to become a global innovation hub 

In North Africa, Tunisia and Egypt also boast vibrant tech scenes with Cairo emerging as a hotspot for startups.  

Clearly, the region cannot afford to lose out to regions with more progressive strategies. In addition to tech needs, there are also mega construction projects requiring civil, mechanical and electrical engineers; a rapid expansion of healthcare systems; inroads into renewable energy, and demand for financial analysts and investment bankers. 

Tourism specialists such as hotel managers and event planners are similarly sought after. And, importantly, experienced education professionals are needed to help with the region’s core aim of upskilling the local population. 

What happened to nationalisation agendas? 

Here, international hiring feeds into countries’ nationalisation agendas. These policies certainly haven’t gone away.  

For example, last December, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of HR and Social Development decreed “a 15% nationalization of sales professionals, wholesale managers and salespeople of information and communications technology equipment” in large organisations (alongside other quotas). 

Investing in its nationals, the Qatar Foundation and Education City host branch campuses of leading international universities to provide world-class education and research opportunities for Qatari students. 

The ambition to nurture its own talent and sustain long-term economic growth, reducing dependency on foreign expertise, sits at the heart of strategies across the region. Simultaneously, however, it needs an influx of experts to bolster the skills of its youthful population. Individuals aged under 30 constitute 55% of the population across MENA, compared with 36% across OECD countries.  

This provides a tech-savvy and adaptable talent pool but one that requires substantial training and development. The education system lags in terms of quality and relevance to the modern jobs market, so available skills do not match employers’ requirements. 

There is also a marked preference from nationals for the perceived stability and benefits of public sector jobs, disadvantaging the private sector; and then there’s ‘brain drain’ as local talent seeks opportunities abroad.  

All this means that external talent is needed to plug gaps, enable knowledge transfer and fuel future opportunities. 

“The influx of foreign professionals can have a positive impact by bringing in diverse perspectives and expertise, driving innovation and productivity,” argues one talent professional we spoke to.  

However, another warns that careful management is required to avoid tensions, advising that “upskilling and reskilling programmes for local employees can help them stay competitive and ensure that the benefits of economic growth are widely shared”. 

Motivators and barriers 

Foreign workers traditionally come from India, Pakistan and the Philippines for healthcare, construction and domestic work, and from Europe for finance, engineering and education. But there’s a growing trend of attracting talent from China and South Korea. 

Key draws include the MENA’s strategic geographical location, its high-profile projects, and exceptional standards of living in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Barriers range from political instability in some areas to cultural differences and concerns about personal freedoms. 

While regulatory obstacles are common, the UAE’s Premium Residency programme, which offers long-term residency to skilled professionals, exemplifies proactive efforts to attract and retain talent. Other governments are likely to follow suit.  

Efforts are also being made to foster cultural integration. “Creating an inclusive and supportive work environment is key,” concludes one talent professional.  

“This includes offering cultural assimilation programmes, flexible working and family support services. Companies should also highlight the unique opportunities and lifestyle benefits of living in the MENA to make relocation more appealing.” 

Despite the barriers and global competition, the region has much to offer international workers. If it can continue to adapt to growing preferences for remote, flexible and inclusive working, it should attract the talent it needs.  

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