Qatar struggles to lure private sector recruits

By Jenifer Fenton in Doha

Fatima, an 18-year old student, went to a career fair this month, looking for an entry-level job as students such as her might do anywhere in the world. But unlike the others, Fatima is Qatari, a citizen of the world’s richest country. She wants to be paid accordingly.

The business student at Qatar University expects a monthly salary in excess of 15,000 Qatari riyals ($4,120), she told the Financial Times, “because I study”.

She is likely to get it. Like many of its Gulf neighbours, Qatar’s vast hydrocarbon wealth and its social contract guarantees citizens government largesse in return for political loyalty. As a result Qataris are overwhelmingly employed in the public sector, enjoying high salaries and generous working conditions.

While few workers would complain about such an arrangement, the government is well aware of the damage it causes to efforts to diversify its economy and build a viable private sector. Efforts are under way to encourage more young people to work in business, not government, and a “Qatarisation” policy sets employment quotas mandating companies to hire local citizens.

This means that for the time being, Qataris such as Fatima are in high demand. While much of the developed world is struggling with persistent youth unemployment, in Qatar, the jobs come hunting for the youth.

This month, jobseekers and recruiting companies attended the fifth annual Qatar Career Fair, organised by the Qatar Foundation for Education and the Ministry of Labour, among others. Thanks to the Qatarisation policy, employers were keen to accept resumes and offer training or educational opportunities to the young Qataris at the fair.

Qataris make up just half of 1 per cent of the country’s private sector workforce, according to government figures. Unemployment is among the lowest in the world and most Qataris who want to work can and do. But in choosing their employers, they lean heavily toward positions in public administration, or in the education and health sectors. For private companies, hiring enough workers to meet the Qatarisation programme’s ambitious employment quotas can be tough.

The local population is far too small to meet the labour needs of an enormously wealthy country such as Qatar at its stage of development, says Simon Williams, HSBC’s chief economist for the Gulf. There are also two competing policy goals in Qatar and the greater Gulf region, he says.

“One is to support the living standards of local nationals, through the provision of public sector employment … but at the same time there’s an appetite for broadening the role that nationals play in the private sector.”

Qatar would like to expand its economic base, Mr Williams says, but “there is obvious tension between the policy goal of trying to encourage nationals to work in the private sector, to acquire the skills that the private sector is looking for at a time when public sector salaries are rising so sharply”.

In 2011, Qatar increased salaries for government employees by 60 per cent. Pay for military personnel went up 120 per cent. The decree issued by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the country’s heir apparent, also raised pensions and social allowances.

The move, onlookers said, made private sector jobs even less appealing, although many employers reportedly raised their salaries to keep up with the public sector. Some Qataris, keen for the challenge and recognition of reaching the management layer in multinational companies, are already working their way through the private sector as a tiny minority of its workforce.

“Becoming a manager … is not just going to happen if you’re sitting down every day drinking tea, getting on Facebook,” says Mohammed Fakhroo, a young Qatari who has a double degree and a good job. For every Qatari such as Mr Fakhroo in the workforce, there are at least 16 foreigners, according to government figures.

Rania al-Khalaf, a 28-year-old Qatari working for Qatar Shell Services W.L.L, was at the fair hoping to recruit nationals to join the company. Shell has decided to invest most of its time focusing on Qatari talent, with many of the positions available being entry level jobs, she says. The company offers a “competitive salary”, one that is “definitely” higher than it would pay in Europe.

Salaries are not the only area where employers need to show flexibility. Qatar is a Muslim country where religion and tradition dictate relationships between the sexes. For Muneera al-Ali, 30, who works at Qatar University, the work environment is as important as the salary. “I am a Qatari woman, I cover my face. It is important when I work in the office, that most people I work with [are women,]” she says. That is “better than when we [are] working with the men”.

A growing number of Qatari women are joining the workforce, whose total size, including non-nationals, has grown four times in the past 10 years. Ms al-Ali, if she fits the national average for local women, spends 38 hours each week in the office. Her male counterparts, on average will work one hour more.

While the career fair made clear that employers and the government are working to increase the role played by Qataris in the private sector, therealities of the country’s labour market make clear the gap eventually needing to be bridged.

Standing guard over the event were a crew of mainly Nepalese security officers, who said they make 1,200 Qatari riyals a month, working 12 hour days, six days a week. For them, a job is a job.