Life as a CA in Saudi Arabia
From fuel prices to human rights abuses to grand plans for economic reform, Saudi Arabia is rarely far from the headlines. Douglas Herron CA, who has had two stints in the kingdom, talks to Lysanne Currie about the pros and cons of working there and its ambitious vision for the future
The phrase “capitalism without democracy” is often applied to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Situated at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, this Middle East powerhouse, known for its oil wealth, has undergone significant reforms as part of an ambitious journey to diversify its economy through its Saudi Vision 2030 initiative. Launched in 2017 by the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), this is a strategic initiative to reduce the country’s dependence on oil (which accounts for 74% of the national budget) by developing sectors such as tourism, entertainment, tech and renewable energy.
Saudi Arabia’s location makes it a vital trade hub, with well-developed infrastructure, including transport networks and ports. It has investment-friendly policies, state-of-the-art tech and smart cities – including Neom, a new megacity being constructed from scratch on the Red Sea coast: target completion date 2039 – and is developing a knowledge-based economy. It is making huge strides in the global sport business, notably golf and football (it was recently awarded the 2034 World Cup). And with a young population, it boasts a demographic dividend conducive to economic growth.
Despite the modernisation – many locals cite 2017, when women were permitted to drive, as a turning point – Amnesty International’s 2022 findings make concerning reading. Saudi human rights violations include restrictions on freedom of expression and association, unfair trials leading to lengthy prison terms and even the death penalty. Meanwhile, migrant workers endure abuse and exploitation under the sponsorship system, with arbitrary detention and torture, while the new Personal Status Law only perpetuates discrimination against women, who are still very much second-class citizens.
What is it like to really live and work in the country? Does it have a gleaming future or is the Saudi house built on sand? Douglas Herron CA has enjoyed an international career which includes two stints in KSA, first with DHL from 2005-2008 in Al Khobar in the east, then from 2021 as CFO for construction company Freyssinet Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. He returned to the UK last month after nearly four years in the kingdom.
Douglas, a civil engineering graduate, trained with Coopers & Lybrand in Edinburgh, then started his international journey with a job in Johannesburg in 1995. “Since then, with the exception of about 14 months in 1999 and 2000, my career has been entirely outside the UK,” he says. When he arrived in Saudi Arabia with DHL in 2005 two things made an immediate impression: the “very brown and dusty” environment and the dress code. “Back then both men and women were all dressed in traditional clothing.”
As a westerner, he says, you’re likely to live in a gated compound, many with shops, restaurants, sporting facilities, swimming pools and schools, either inside or attached. They are designed to afford families, particularly wives, a more conventional western lifestyle. “Lots of kids, lots of facilities. It’s all within walking distance, and it’s geared up to be convenient. Our first posting to Saudi Arabia from a family perspective was one of our nicest,” he says.
“The reason I went back in 2020 was twofold,” he says. “Freyssinet approached me not only because of my civil engineering background, career experience and CA qualification, but because they knew I’d been there before. It’s not a culture shock when you go a second time. It was a natural fit. Plus, the money was pretty good.” Earnings in the oil-rich KSA are, of course, income tax free. “But they do have 15% VAT on virtually everything now,” he adds. “Saudis are complaining everything is so expensive now!”
Ringing the changes
Douglas has seen radical changes since his first posting. Graft has been significantly reduced, for example, thanks to the new Nazaha anti-corruption commission; though this comes at a price – decision-making is slower due to fear of that very outfit, especially when dealing with government or quangos. Where previously a person in a high position could swiftly approve or reject changes, they now hesitate. “It can be painfully slow getting decisions made,” says Douglas. “With the construction industry so heavily reliant on multiple layers of international consultants involved in the approval process, such a complex system can make progress sluggish.”
The weather, too, has its pros and cons. “The great thing is, it’s predictable,” says Douglas. “If you want to organise a social around the pool, you know it won’t rain. It can get above 50°C and people work in it, but there’s now a mandatory break for outside workers from 11am-2pm. People work early in the morning and later at night.”
As for Saudi Vision 2030, Douglas is not yet convinced it will wean Saudi off its oil dependency – at least for some time. “Three-quarters of Saudi revenue still comes from fossil fuels, oil and oil exports.” Might tourism be the way forward, especially with the creation of a new visa system? “It’s a quick win,” he says. “Until recently, with the exception of religious tourism, there was none at all. That’s really new. [But] they’re projecting around 10 million non-religious tourists, and I think that’s just a crazy number. It’s almost what Egypt gets [Egypt had 11.7 million tourists in 2022-23] and there’s nothing like the culture here that you have in Egypt.
“But the Vision 2030 plan is driving a huge amount of economic activity in other areas too: construction, infrastructure (especially renewables), event organisation and coordination, such as Formula 1, golf, the America’s Cup and football, and mining and manufacturing. And the activity in these areas does present huge opportunities.”
Patience is a much-needed virtue in KSA. “There’s lots of money but they can be slow paying out,” Douglas says. “There’s an Arabic phrase, ‘Inshallah’, which means God willing. If you’re lucky you’ll get paid but chances are you won’t. You have to develop incredible resilience. If you can’t deal with things taking much more time than you anticipate, KSA might not be for you!”
Culturally, there’s been some progress. Cinemas – once considered corrupting – have opened and are, smiles Douglas, “very popular – surprise!” Restaurants have desegregated. Tech has been a game-changer too: obtaining a work permit in Saudi Arabia used to take several months but tech advances have streamlined the process, with online portals and apps cutting the time to a few days. Meanwhile, smartphones have become integral to daily life, with apps such as Tawakkalna, which registers vaccinations and health status. However, heavy reliance on technology has raised problems. “If there’s any requirement for manual input from, say, government or whatever, even though it might be on an app, it’s still going to take ages,” says Douglas. “They’ve progressed so far forward, that in some cases, they don’t have a back-up process if the technology doesn’t work.”
Douglas suggests asking yourself some hard questions – about your lifestyle, values and priorities – before taking a job in KSA. “If you are young and single, I wouldn’t advise going as it can be pretty lonely and difficult to socialise,” he says. “Also work out who you will be working for and with. Security of employment will generally be better in international companies as they will follow western HR [norms].” And look at the whole package, not just the salary. “Accommodation in the compounds is eye-wateringly expensive, as are schools. If the package doesn’t include accommodation, either fully provided by the company, or via a substantial company contribution, you’re going to be massively eating into that salary.”
But for those happy to embrace the culture change, he says a great experience awaits: “The people I worked with in Saudi Arabia were very friendly, helpful and generous. Would I go back a third time? Never say never.”
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