The opportunities and challenges when recruiting architecture roles in the UAE
UAE still offers huge opportunities – for the right people
It’s not just the 40°C heat that makes working as an architect in the United Arab Emirates remarkable. The UAE may not be quite the hotspot of construction it was 10 years ago, but it’s still a place of huge opportunity – where you can get projects to site and completed in super-quick time, and where there’s a constant ambition for buildings designed to stand out from the crowd.
Yet despite the potential for a high standard of living and above-average salaries, working here will not be for everyone. And for RIBA chartered practices in the UAE, it’s important to be careful about recruiting the right personnel to suit the particular ways of practising architecture, and doing business in general, in the region.
So how do practices go about hiring?
The state of the development market means that there is no shortage of available talent.
‘It’s a difficult market in the UAE at the moment – there are a lot of talented architects looking for work,’ says Neil Serridge, associate director of Benoy, who has worked in the Dubai office since 2014. ‘We either look to promote from within, advertise on our website, LinkedIn and Twitter, or look at the many CVs we receive. Within our Dubai Studio, we have tended to recruit from within the UAE rather than bring people over from the UK.’
BDP established its office in Abu Dhabi in 2010.
‘Generally, we recruit locally from the UAE and wider MENA region, particularly if we’re looking for new graduates and younger members of staff,’ says BDP MENA director Gary Dicken. ‘There’s a pretty close-knit community network so word of mouth plays a part. For more senior strategic roles we tend to look within our own firm or engage recruitment agencies.’
While most practices employ a variety of nationalities, it’s well worth considering graduates from the best local architecture schools, such as the American University of Sharjah and the American University of Dubai.
‘Having people who can speak Arabic in your studio is really advantageous,’ says Neil Serridge of Benoy. ‘This helps with developing working relations with our Arabic speaking clients and also understanding any literature we receive in Arabic.’
Sumaya Dabbagh, a UK-educated Saudi Arabian who established her practice Dabbagh Architects 10 years ago, looks for candidates with local/regional experience who also meet international standards in terms of training.
‘I prefer to have someone with some experience of the UAE as it can be quite a culture shock otherwise in terms of the ways that things are done, how planning works and all the regulations,’ she says.
Similarly, Jonathan Ashmore of Dubai-based practice Anarchitect looks for candidates with first-hand experience of the region and cultural sensitivity but who are also internationally minded.
‘We need quite strong, entrepreneurial and diverse characters including Arabic speakers and people from the region,’ he says.
‘We like to find people with an understanding of the culture and opportunities in the Middle East but who also have an understanding of international standards of work and design. For junior architects, we look to engage with some of the good local schools. UAE is a very international place and it’s important to understand the different cultures and contexts.’
UAE practices want staff who can embrace the particularly intensive nature of projects in the region.
‘It’s very intense. Demands from the client are quite high in terms of expectations of time frame and the number of revisions they want you to do,’ says Ashmore.
‘While we’re always looking for intelligent designers with a genuine appreciation of context and culture, the challenges here are different,’ adds BDP’s Gary Dicken. ‘Invariably we’re working to challenging deadlines. You have to be extremely efficient and get to the answers quickly. There’s no time to deliberate.’
Skill in handling client relationships is another important attribute.
‘There is a very fast pace to the work that we deliver in this region, and clients as ever are very demanding due to tight time scales,’ says Neil Serridge of Benoy. ‘Clients very much value face time and building strong working relations based on trust. We are always looking for creative and technically adept candidates, with strong social skills.’
For the right candidate, the rewards can be considerable.
‘There are fantastic opportunities to be innovative and really push the creative boundaries here,’ says Serridge. ‘We’re working for interesting clients on various scales of projects, with a fast pace and the chance to see them progress to site quickly.’
‘The opportunity to work on really interesting projects is available here and I think that’s very exciting for a lot of young architects,’ says Sumaya Dabbagh, pointing to the varied workload of her own practice.
Candidates may also like the prospect of higher salaries, although these do go hand-in-hand with high living costs.
BDP’s Dicken points to the good quality of life on offer. ‘There’s no long commute, it’s very safe, and UAE is a tremendous hub for onward travel.’
And while it won’t be for everyone, there are certainly good prospects for architects in the UAE if, as Jonathan Ashmore puts it, you’re prepared ‘to take the rough with the smooth’.
‘It is a positively demanding environment,’ he says. ‘But it’s great because there’s also ambition, and you can get involved in projects that are genuinely exciting and dynamic and our architects actually get to see the projects being built and handed over.’
Tips on recruiting talent in the UAE
- Recruit a diverse team including Arabic speakers and those with local knowledge.
- Consider talent from the best local universities as well as expats.
- Recruit candidates with the potential to suit the high-intensity working practices of the region.
- Recruit candidates with the people skills required for managing sensitive client relationships.
- If recruiting from the UK, be upfront about the particular working and living conditions in the UAE.