Employment in the Gulf: Not Always What it Seems
The fight for more visibility and higher rankings on the global higher-education stage has wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council countries scrambling for international academic talent, and offering salary packages with a reputation for being generous. That reputation, it turns out, is not always deserved.
But for many struggling Arab academics from countries where teaching is less lucrative, a common solution is to look toward the Gulf.
“English departments across Tunisia are being emptied of their teachers and professors because most of them have already headed to the Gulf countries where the salaries are four to five times those at home,” said Akram Khalifa, a former professor of English literature at Tunisia’s University of Manouba.
“Those who could have left, already have,” echoed one lecturer at the University of Jordan.
Foreign academics, say experts, make up the majority of academia in the Gulf. Even so, some worry about the consequences of working there.
“The Gulf is still off-the-beaten track,” said an education consultant based in the Gulf. Foreign academics, he said, “worry that if they come to the Middle East, they would get out of the traditional career trajectory—from teaching assistant to assistant professor and so on.” Academics from countries where professors can get tenure, such as the United States, are wary of career moves that might endanger their ability to win that status at home.
Still, there are clear financial advantages to working in the Gulf, especially tax-free salaries, which lure Arab and non-Arab academics alike to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“If you looked at the salaries at any reasonably high performing Western university—from Ivy League to sub-Ivy League – that should give a broad direction, at least for Qatar,” said the consultant, referring to salary levels. “And Qatar is possibly one of the best places to be a researcher.” Another research fund has recently been announced in Qatar, including support for undergraduate research.
Research funding for academics can also be quite strong in other Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, although researchers sometimes complain of bureaucratic obstacles to ordering equipment or getting permission to attend international meetings in their disciplines.
Faculty members bargaining for a job offer in the Gulf should realize they are often facing highly informed and experienced negotiators who have access to international benchmarks. As is increasingly common in other parts of the world, Gulf institutions are pooling human resource information. One such survey found that university presidents in the region were making around $460,000 before noncash benefits.
Besides salaries comparable to the West, professors in the Gulf can earn allowances supplementing base pay.
A job vacancy listing for the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah shows the type of salary an academic can expect in Saudi Arabia. A full professor would earn around $2,430 monthly, an additional $134 in “experience allowances” for each year as a full professor, an unspecified “special allowance” of 150 percent of the base salary each year, a transport allowance of $160, a yearly housing allowance of $6,664 and a one-off furniture allowance of $3,333. That means an annual salary for an academic who has been a full professor for five years would be $80,940 plus $8,584 in housing and transportation.
Flights home are provided annually for foreign teaching staff ranging from assistant to full professor, and also include fares for spouses and two dependent children. In addition, the package includes 60 days of paid vacation, as well as two paid vacations of 10 days each for the two Eid holidays, important Muslim celebrations.
Finally, when the contract comes to an end, the professor will receive a severance package amounting to half the monthly salary for each year of service for the first five years, which increases to a full monthly salary per year of service after the sixth year. All those incentives are designed to make up for a lack of pension contributions and to avoid faculty turnover, which leads to high administrative and recruiting costs.
Even with highly competitive salaries and benefits, many already in the Gulf say the region doesn’t always live up to its reputation for generosity. And it starts with battles with recruitment agencies—one of the most common paths that foreign academics follow to come to work at Gulf universities.
One lecturer at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, recalls agreeing to a specific salary only to have the terms changed shortly before she was due to start teaching.
“After signing a contract for $3,000 per month, I and a group of South African teachers were told that the company felt that $2,500 was a more suitable salary,” she said. “I threatened to return home to Canada if I wasn’t paid the full salary agreed upon.”
Her colleagues were not so lucky. “They were just told their new salary of $2,500 was non-negotiable,” she added. The South Africans stayed, feeling the job situation in their home country would be worse.
In the Emirates, salaries vary according to which of the three federal institutions professors teach at: United Arab Emirates University, Zayed University or the Higher Colleges of Technology. Those who have been in the country longer also tend to get more than recent recruits, as government education budgets have been slashed.
“The salaries are definitely competitive on a global scale,” one government source said. “I would say that the average professor at the United Arab Emirates University has a better lifestyle and overall income than the average professor in the USA or the UK, especially when taxes are factored in.”
Sources in the Emirates indicated a range of $41,000 for an instructor in Arabic to $176,000 for a full professor of business at one federal institution, although those numbers are a few years old. Another federal institution estimated the average faculty member cost them $109,000 including all vacation, housing, medical benefits, airplane tickets home, and schooling for children.
One academic who taught as an assistant professor at a public university in the Emirates, described the salary situation as “not nearly as good as people think.”
His starting salary was $57,000 per year plus benefits—housing, tuition and airfare for his family. Lower-level teaching positions were paid in the $40,000 range.
But lofty qualifications did not make for marked differences, he said.
“A colleague who left a tenure position and came in as associate professor only made 20 percent more than me,” he recalled. But “it’s tax-free and a comfortable lifestyle—so the jobs remain attractive.”
Professors in the Emirates with technical skills often supplement their income with consulting work, although it is officially frowned on. A professor of engineering might be paid several thousand dollars to fly to Yemen to review construction projects or a business professor might go to Saudi Arabia to give a workshop on project management.
Perceptions of what is a comfortable living vary greatly and are culturally relative. Emiratis are paid much more than expatriates. One salary table showed Emiratis getting about 20 percent more than expatriates. Anecdotally, some Emiratis said they could make two or three times that of expatriate counterparts. “If without children, the salary is fine,” said one Emirati.
“Emirati academics are very rare, there aren’t a lot of them,” said John Waterbury, a political science professor at New York University, Abu Dhabi, and former president of the American University of Beirut. “These positions are not as attractive to them—they get better paying jobs outside of academia.”
In the end, universities in the Gulf countries and the recruiting agencies that serve them vary enormously in their treatment of faculty members. Those considering a career path that includes the Gulf would do well, say those who have worked there, to step carefully.