Follow ACC Docket Online:  

Interested in Moving to the GCC? 6 Things You Need to Know

S o, you're interested in exploring career options in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — a new, thriving market for in-house counsel. Whether that be Kuwait City, Riyadh, Manama, or Dubai, you are in for adventure-filled, multicultural experiences and the opportunity to flourish on a professional and personal level.

Before applying for a work visa in a GCC country, in-house lawyers first need to decide whether to move before securing a job or to secure one before relocating. There are solid arguments on both sides.

One main benefit of securing a position before moving would be minimizing the time between employments. By efficiently managing your time, a candidate looking to secure an in-house counsel position in the GCC can retain their current job while preparing for the move.

On the other hand, being thousands of miles away and trying to find a job in a foreign market can be challenging. There is also the thorny issue of time differences, not to mention being unable to meet with recruiters, contacts, or potential employers in person. Thankfully, technology has alleviated some of these problems. Video conferencing, phone calls, and email have made international job-hunting easier than ever.

Moving to the GCC before securing a position also has its own pros and cons. Being present in a GCC city enables you to take in-person meetings, learn the lay of the land, and get in tune with the culture quicker. The obvious risk is leaving your current in-house counsel or private practice position, not to mention your home, for the prospect of a new role. As we will elaborate below, you should also be aware of your visiting visa and residency rights when attempting to move to a GCC state without employment.

Once you've made the important decision of moving before or after you've found a new role, you should consider the following:

1. Recruiters and social networks

Whether you have decided to find a new role before or after making the move to the GCC, you will be faced with the practical challenges of identifying, applying, and successfully securing that role. The most common avenue to secure a job in the GCC is hiring a legal recruiter — preferably a global recruiter if you have decided to secure a role before moving.

Recruiters will help you identify the role you would be most suited for and offer practical guidance on the application and hiring process. "Cold" emailing or contacting a recruiter (or an employer) can have varying degrees of success. Unless your experience and education stand out, it may be difficult capturing their attention. A better approach would be to get to know a recruiter or recruiting company through networking or other social events.

Furthermore, your chance of obtaining a job in a GCC state can greatly be increased based on your ability to leverage interpersonal networks and relationships with colleagues and peers. Reach out to your contacts accordingly, and don't be shy in letting people know of your decision to migrate.

2. Credentials

Although there is some debate in certain jurisdictions, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, on the benefit and value of higher education to further your career, the overwhelming opinion amongst GCC employers and recruiters is that postgraduate degrees (including JD, LLM, and even relevant PhD degrees, particularly those obtained from duly accredited US, UK, and French institutions) are deemed almost a bare minimum in order for an international candidate to be considered for an interview.

In addition, your postgraduate work experience will also play a vital role to employers who generally look overseas for candidates who can add value to their operations at a level that cannot be sourced locally. Most employers generally view overseas candidates without at least a few years of relevant work experience as too risky to hire.

Another strategy to help you secure an in-house role in the GCC includes demonstrating an interest in local and regional legal issues. Drafting articles or papers that, for example, offer substantive legal analysis on trade issues relating to Dubai's free trade zone shows a desire to work there. If you are serious about finding a job in the GCC, briefly interning at a GCC company or other organization during your graduate years will be beneficial. It would, of course, also be impressive to have a basic understanding of the principles of Islamic/Shari'a law, which is the constitutional law of all GCC jurisdictions, as they consider themselves Islamic states.

3. Culture

As with any move to a new market, you must take the time to educate yourself on local customs and practices. In-house counsel play a critical role in their organizations, which, in turn, reflect their society and region. Therefore, in order to be an effective business advisor and good global citizen, learning the culture is invaluable. There is no better way to do this than to actually travel to different parts of the GCC and learn the subtle differences of doing business there. Learning the host state's customs and social etiquette will give you an advantage above other candidates.

If you can't visit the GCC prior to moving, try interacting with locals and expats either through global networking events, courses, or social media. Also be sure to seek introductions or referrals through colleagues or organizations like ACC, which has a strong presence in the Middle East. It never hurts to start building a social network well ahead of your move.

In whichever GCC state you decide to relocate, seek like-minded peers at the beginning of your stay, then open yourself to up the GCC's multitude of cultures. This will prove to be a fantastic way on which to progress your reputation and career as an international in-house counsel.

4. Language

Don't be intimidated if you do not speak Arabic, as English is widely spoken in the GCC. Moreover, because of the multinational nature of most GCC cities and the high volume of cross-border transactions, the general operating practice of most GCC organizations is to conduct most legal and business affairs in English as a means of bridging local and foreign interests.

As for staying updated on the host country's laws and regulations, most GCC countries' legal information is available in English. Though again, it is important to be proactive. Register for region-specific newsletters from international firms or join local or international associations with networks that can regularly provide valuable information and help. It is important to integrate yourself if you want to learn information in English and on a timely basis.
Another way to tackle any language barriers is to use certified legal translators who can communicate with the host country ministries and interpret the new laws and regulations.

In any case, language barriers in regards to business (and also life) have been greatly broken down over the past decade. Not having command of the Arabic language is no longer debilitating. That said, a great way to take advantage of your overseas work experience is to invest some of your time in learning the local language.

5. The job offer

When looking for the right role, do not accept any offers before doing your research and determining your salary and benefits requirements. Be sure to factor the local living expenses (including rental, household, food, transportation, and petrol costs), which vary greatly between states and even cities.

It is not uncommon for expatriates to choose to live in GCC states, such as Saudi Arabia, because the living expenses on average tend to be much lower than their home countries. With that consideration, some may even accept lower salaries than they would receive in their home countries as a way to generate savings and have residual income for investment or repatriation.

Also worth noting is that there is currently no tax imposed on income in the GCC states and that value-added tax (VAT) is minimal. However, be sure to research your home country's regulations, including any bilateral agreements with the intended GCC state, as you might be subjected to income tax. For example, the United States practices universal income tax, and if you cannot prove that you are paying income tax in the host country, then you may be subjected to this tax.

For benefits, you should also discuss the option of receiving company owned accommodation and transport, or at least allowances added to your salary. Most companies will also provide expatriate employees with an annual ticket to their home country for them and their families.

Lastly, you should have a basic understanding of the host country's employment rights, and pay close to attention to any regulations relating to residency rights and termination of the contract. You do not want to be in a position where your employment contract can be abruptly terminated with two months' notice and no cause and then have to leave the host country in a relatively short time span.

6. Residency and visa considerations

GCC states generally require that you obtain a valid work permit in order to have a residency permit or iqama. Your employer will have to apply for these work permits on your behalf, thereby legally becoming your sponsor or qafeel, ensuring that you're not violating any local labor policies.

For example, expatriates residing in a GCC state are generally only permitted to work for their sponsor and cannot provide work under any circumstances to any other organization. Bear in mind that there is no concept of permanent residency or green cards in the GCC, and obtaining local nationality is rare if not inconceivable.

It is important to note that you cannot leave the host country without obtaining permission from your employer through an exit/re-entry visa, and your employer may have the authority to withdraw your residency rights at any time and without cause.

That said, you will find that most respectable organizations practice these policies with the greatest of caution and restraint. Furthermore, the government relations officers are also dedicated to ensuring that the expatriate employees do not have to face any difficulties or restraints when it comes obtaining visas, work permits, and residency rights.

In conclusion, when working as in-house counsel in the GCC, it can be both professionally and personally rewarding, and the transferable skills you'll gain will separate you from the masses. Whether you want to make the transition to be closer to family or are looking for a new adventure, the GCC is closer than you think.

About the Authors

Fivos SarelisFivos Sarelis has been working as a legal consultant in Saudi Arabia, in both private practice and more recently in-house, with a focus on matters pertaining to foreign investment, commercial transactions, and acquisitions. Fivos has an LLB from the University Of Essex in English law and an LLM from the PALLAS Programme in European business law.

Ramsey SaleebyRamsey Saleeby serves as legal counsel to ACC, in addition to assisting the legal resources function provide best-in-class resources to ACC’s global membership. Saleeby also develops the Global General Counsel Summit and Executive Leadership Institute. He is as an Adjunct Professor at the George Mason University School of Law teaching international commercial transactions.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.