- Antoine Mariaux
With InterNations it was easy to find the right school for our kids after they joined me in Kuwait.
Employment in Kuwait
- With one of the lowest unemployment rates worldwide and no personal income taxes, Kuwait provides an attractive job market for expats.
- Kuwait is, however, encouraging the local workforce to take more jobs higher up the career ladder, which makes it harder for expats.
- Expats don’t need to have Arabic language skills to work, due to the many multinational firms and the English-speaking community.
With a gross domestic product of over 123 billion USD in 2015, the importance of Kuwait’s economy far surpasses its small geographical size. Kuwait has a wealthy and fairly open economy which mainly relies on the country’s immense oil resources. At 3%, Kuwait has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.
Expatriates with skills that are on demand in the country’s booming economy are received with open arms. Still, this applies mostly to those who will be employed in Kuwait for just a temporary period. Foreigners generally are not granted citizenship, irrespective of how long they have been a resident of Kuwait with restrictions imposed on land or property ownership.
Main Industries in Kuwait
Kuwait’s economy is dominated by the massive oil industry. Kuwait has crude oil reserves of around 104 million barrels, more than 8% of reserves worldwide. Petroleum accounts for close to half of Kuwait’s GDP and over 90% of government income. Many expatriates working in Kuwait are employed in this sector. But due to the recent drop in oil prices, Kuwait’s economy has begun to shrink. The annual GDP and exports fell from 2014 to 2015, while a budget deficit emerged for the first time in 16 years.
The manufacturing sector is also dominated by oil products and is mainly export-oriented. Recently, the fastest growing fields in the service sector have been real estate, business services, and finance. These also offer various opportunities for expats.
As Kuwait has practically no arable land, it does not have any meaningful agriculture. The state imports more than 95% of its food. The only exception is the fishing industry, as seafood is plentiful in Kuwait’s coastal waters.
Getting Your Work Permit
All expats, with the exception of nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, have to obtain a work permit before they can take up employment in Kuwait. Work permits are only issued if the expat has a valid employment offer.
The employer then functions as a sponsor for the expatriate employee while he or she is working in Kuwait. This means the company handles all the administrative work for you, from filing the visa application to opening your bank account. Also, your sponsor is responsible for you as long as you are resident in Kuwait and liable if you violate any regulations.
Once the work permit has been granted and residency obtained, male expats can, in turn, act as a sponsor for their spouse and children to come live with them in Kuwait. If dependents also want jobs in Kuwait, they will have to obtain separate work permits.
A Relaxed Tax Regime
Most of Kuwait’s extensive government spending is financed by oil revenues. Taxes, the main source of government income elsewhere, appear to be dispensable. As such, there are no personal taxes, not even for expats working in Kuwait.
The only ones liable to pay income tax are foreign companies working in Kuwait. The corporate income tax rate for foreign businesses currently is a flat 15%. Kuwaiti-owned businesses are exempted from any such taxes.
As those working in Kuwait will soon find out, there is no value-added tax, either. There have been discussions, however, about introducing it.
Social Security for Expats
Kuwait has a comprehensive social security system that covers all Kuwaiti nationals working in Kuwait. It covers pensions, disability, and sickness benefits, as well as free public healthcare. The system is financed mostly by the state.
The public social security system, however, is not accessible for expats working in Kuwait. Some employers have corporate pension schemes for expatriate employees. If these are not available, it is advisable to continue paying into a state pension scheme and/or private pension plan in your home country while you are working in Kuwait.
Expatriates do have access to public medical care while residing in Kuwait. In recent years, however, there has been increasing pressure on foreign companies to provide private health insurance for expatriates working in Kuwait in order to reduce the burden on the public system, with plans to restrict expats’ service hours in public hospitals as well as building expat-only hospitals with a higher charge.
The Job Search for Expats in Kuwait
The Job Market — Favoring Locals
Expatriates are a common phenomenon in Kuwait’s economy. Around two-thirds of the labor force is made up of foreign nationals. Although the majority of these are manual workers in low-income jobs, the number of expats in the upper segments of the labor market is also high. Still, finding a job in Kuwait is not as easy as it once was. While, in the past, expats have filled many major upper-level positions, new generations of Kuwaitis now entering the labor market are increasingly well educated, and the government is aware of the need to provide them with decent career opportunities within Kuwaiti borders.
Companies are therefore strongly encouraged to hire locals whenever possible. Kuwaiti authorities can limit the number of work visas issued to a company to make sure certain quotas of local employees are upheld. Additionally, plans have been proposed to cut the number of expats in the country over the next few years. As of 1 March 2016, Kuwait has started to ban all expats aged over 50 from working in the public sector.
The treatment of migrant workers — in low paid jobs — is always a hot topic in the GCC region, with numerous stories about the exploitation and abuse of laborers, with regard to their working conditions and level of pay, as well as their inability to report any mistreatments or even change their employers. Just recently, however, a new law set an upper limit on working hours to twelve hours a day including breaks. Even though this is still a high amount, it was the first time that the government has put a maximum on the number of hours, so it still is a step in the right direction.
Professional Qualifications Needed for a Job
Despite government efforts to become more self-sufficient in terms of labor, the demand for expatriate specialists is not likely to cease altogether. Expats skilled in key areas for the development of the Kuwaiti economy will still have a good chance to get a job there.
This applies particularly to expats who hold a degree and have comprehensive professional experience in the financial sector or in the fields of marketing, sales, and business development. Engineers, especially those with skills relevant to the oil industry, probably stand the best chance of fulfilling their dream of working in Kuwait.
How to Search for Work
For job postings, check out Monster.com and Bayt.com. Both have extensive job listings for working in Kuwait. Also, there are a number of reputable recruiting agencies that mainly deal with jobs in upper management. Aman Overseas and Career Hunters, to name just a few, are highly regarded recruitment agencies that you could start with.
When push comes to shove, however, self-initiative is key. Seek out companies (both multinationals and Kuwaiti businesses) that might require the set of skills you can offer, and contact them directly. In Kuwait, personal relationships are very important in all aspects, including in the business world. Local contacts can therefore prove immensely valuable for finding employment.
As in many other expat destinations, teaching English is a very popular option for working in Kuwait. There is always a high demand for English teachers in private language schools, as well as at the universities and private international schools. Private lessons are also becoming increasingly popular, though they are mostly a means for regular teachers to supplement their income.
Depending on the institution, a university degree in TEFL and some teaching experience are usually required for working in Kuwait as an English teacher. There is also demand for translators, though usually only on a part-time or short-term basis.
Language and Business Etiquette in Kuwait
Knowing a Bit of Arabic Helps
Companies in Kuwait usually do not require — or, for that matter, even expect — expats to speak any Arabic. In the Kuwaiti business world, English is widely spoken. Many Kuwaiti entrepreneurs have plenty of experience abroad and speak English well.
In everyday life, however, English is not as prevalent. While most Kuwaitis know at least some English words, having basic Arabic skills can be very helpful for expats. Being able to read Arabic numerals will also make grocery shopping much easier. Knowing how to reply to common phrases and greetings is always appreciated by Kuwaiti neighbors, acquaintances, and shopkeepers.
The official and written language in Kuwait is Modern Standard Arabic. Most people, however, speak in the local colloquial dialect, Kuwaiti Arabic. For those planning to travel to or live in other Arab countries, it might be a good idea to learn Standard Arabic instead of the local Kuwaiti dialect. You may wind up coming across as rather formal when you speak, but you will be understood everywhere and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.
A Religious Culture
Islam plays an important role in everyday life in Kuwait. Always respect local residents’ need to perform their religious duties. Muslims pray five times a day at predetermined times. Even official meetings may be interrupted in favor of prayer.
Dinner invitations may also be somewhat different than what you are used to back home. Even if you are invited for 20:00, dinner may not be served until several hours later at 22:00 or even 23:00. The time before the actual meal is considered time to relax and socialize.
Some Arab families still eat in the traditional fashion as well. This means sitting on cushions on the floor during the meal and eating with your hand. If participating in such a traditional meal, always remember to use your right hand for eating. The left is considered unclean.
Business Etiquette — Up Close and Personal
In Kuwait, doing business is dependent on building up a lot of trust and developing personal relationships. Therefore, never try to rush business matters, but wait until an atmosphere of trust and friendship has been established.
Also, it may seem that your Kuwaiti counterparts rarely are in any rush. Decisions are often reached slowly, and negotiations require patience. One of the most disrespectful things to do during a business meeting — or any other social event — is to appear to be in a hurry. On the bright side, being on time is less important, so you needn’t rush to your next meeting anyway.
Business apparel in Kuwait should be conservative. Women should choose skirts that cover their knees and sleeves that cover their elbows. More revealing attire is often considered offensive. When introduced to somebody, always remember their academic or political title, and use this whenever you address them.
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- Antoine Mariaux
With InterNations it was easy to find the right school for our kids after they joined me in Kuwait.
- Patricia Quade
I found some amazing people on InterNations, and now I enjoy helping other newcomers in Kuwait.