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The Female Expatriate Experience of Relocating to the Middle East

The Female Expatriate Experience of Relocating to the Middle East

Working with relocating expats is great.  Not only do we get to share some of the pre-move buzz with relocating families, but we also get to hear the post arrival updates and share a little of the settling in excitement.  

Although an exciting time of change and opportunity, the preparation and lead up to relocation can be extremely stressful – particularly if the whole family are moving. 

Anxieties vary widely, and depend on factors such as the target country, the presence of accompanying family members, the type of role being performed upon arrival and the degree to which an individual has travelled in in the past.  

For women relocating to the Middle East however, there are some fundamental concerns which are expressed by nearly all those who have not previously worked in the Middle East, for example: Will I be disadvantaged because of my gender?  Will I be able to travel around and socialise freely when I arrive?  

Pan Middle East

The Middle East is so diverse and rich in culture and history, that these questions are baseless unless you drill down to the specific target country. 

Pinning down pan-Middle Eastern examples is as challenging as nailing jelly to the wall – so we won’t attempt to do so. Instead, we will make reference to two countries which are most commonly visited by our expatriate women; Dubai and Saudi Arabia. At fairly opposing ends of our ‘gender concern’ continuum, these two countries represent the fairly strict and liberal cultures within the region. Following the removal of sanctions, we will also make reference to Iran as it will become a target country for many women as business deals start to emerge.

Saudi Arabia

Let’s start with Saudi Arabia or KSA as it’s most commonly known (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). The reality for women moving to KSA is that they rarely, if ever, interact with local nationals. 

Foreigners (male and females alike) typically live in Western compounds; enjoying a culture which is distinctly international – if not predominately western.  Most compounds have multiple swimming pools, restaurants, gyms, shops, bowling allies and sometimes cinemas. Exceptional compounds also include schools.  Since Saudi rules do not apply within the compound, women often find they can enjoy the same freedoms that they enjoy at home.

A significant benefit that many female expats report is that of safety. Compounds are usually very well guarded and, as such, many families find a freedom within the compound that they may not have at home.  Mothers, for instance, often report that they are happy to let their children to play outside unattended. Many also report feeling safer walking around on their own at night, than they did in their home location.  

For those women who only leave the compound for the purposes of working, life continues very much as before but with the additional benefits of increased safety and a relaxed living environment with fantastic leisure conveniences at hand.

A notable difference with their male counterparts however, is that men have the freedom to leave the compound as a single person.  For women, this is typically not the case. Taxi drivers will rarely transport single females (women are unable to drive in KSA) and sightseeing as a single female can be equally problematic due to KSA gender segregation.

What about clothing?  Although women are often concerned about dress restrictions when relocating to Saudi Arabia, within the compound they typically have the freedom to wear whatever they want; although, upon leaving the compound they must cover everything between the neck, ankles and wrists (including hair). Dress considerations are not female specific however as men must also dress modestly and cannot reveal anything above the knees or elbows.

Dubai (UAE)

We hear far more in the press about Dubai  in the UAE and the consequences borne by our fellow Brits of potential ‘rule flouting’ despite it being more liberal than KSA. 

I spoke recently to a female expat who said that she loves life in Dubai.  She commented that she appreciates the added security enabled through Islamic law, referencing that you do not see people getting drunk on the street or taking drugs and that you rarely hear accounts of muggings or theft.  ‘As long as you understand the laws and know the dos and don’ts then life is good here and I feel respected’. 

During our intercultural training programmes, we inevitably spend time on the ‘don’ts’ and find that once people are aware of these expectations then they usually have very no issues in following them.

One of the many reasons why women might prefer Dubai to KSA is that Dubai is far easier to function in independently as a female.  There are no issues, for example, in a taking a taxi as a single woman, driving or socialising. Dubai is one of the Emirates which allows foreigners to drink alcohol, albeit with a license. In terms of dress, although restrictions in Dubai aren’t as strict as those in Saudi, women in Dubai must still dress modestly.

Of the many women that we know who live and work in Dubai, most have found it a positive experience and have been able to operate independently with little cause for concern. As with KSA, it appears that many females who have taken part in our cross-cultural training programmes also perceive Dubai as a ‘safer’ environment than their home country.


What about Iran? Following the sanctions lift, UK companies are starting to look into potential business opportunities in Iran. Where such deals are made, then female expatriates will follow.

As one of the world’s most prominent historic and cultural countries, Iran is set to become a destination that many compete to work in.  So, what kind of experience might female expats encounter if they travel here? Many would argue that Iran is a country of contradictions, whereby seemingly opposing events occur seamlessly and without question. 

From a cross cultural training perspective, much attention is given to this phenomena.  For the purposes of brevity however, we’ll limit an example of this to that of Samira Makhmalbaf. Samira is an example of the very many ambitious, talented and successful women in Iran. Although women’s rights are considered ‘progressive’ for the region, there is still some way to go and, as such, it is generally perceived by the outside world that Iranian women are repressed and disenfranchised. However, Iranian women tend to be well educated (accounting for over 60% of the university population) and are constantly pushing boundaries and excelling. Family is the most important part of Iran and females are very much the head of the home.

From a female perspective, living and working in Iran will require an understanding of the culture and the respective laws of the country.  The common sentiment of female expats is that Iran can be tough to live and work in at first.  Understanding the cultural differences and the expectations placed on females within this society takes some getting used to.  However, once able to navigate Iranian society successfully, it seems they feel safe and respected (attacks on foreign women in Iran is virtually non-existent) -although frustrations may not be far away, such as no physical contact at all with males, dressing appropriately and needing to be accompanied when outside.

We can’t account for generic female expatriate experiences in all Middle Eastern countries, particularly those in which political upheaval has completely dismantled, if not eradicated traditional social norms, but our interactions with women working in the Middle East have been incredibly positive.

In addition to the benefits outlined above, women also typically earn far more than they would in the UK, pay less tax and feel greater security than they do in their home countries.

Is it any wonder that many are keen to extend their stay for as long as possible?

Cultural Training Webinars 

If you are an expat relocating to the Middle East, then fully prepare and boost your success while working in the region by taking part in one of our cultural training webinars.  Developed by country and culture experts, our cultural training webinars are a fantastic way to prepare for your assignment and to arrive in your new target destination equipped with an understanding of essential topics such as communication, business culture, taboos and etiquette. 


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