After each global economic downturn or financial crisis, the Lebanese engage in a time-honored head count to see who has lost his or her place in their host country and who has not.
However, ‘head counts’ by Lebanese embassies in Gulf capitals showed that the expected reverse exodus of Lebanese expatriates during the financial crash of 2008 was more a trickle than a flood.
“Lebanese in the United Arab Emirates have been the least affected among the Arab and foreign communities because they are not primarily employees, but rather business owners,” stated a 2009 study from the University of Poitiers in France, citing reports from the Lebanese foreign ministry. Another foreign ministry report stated that “the crisis has not increased the percentage of Lebanese permanently leaving Kuwait,” and concluded more generally that “the scare of massive lay-offs and returns that swept Lebanon and its expatriates in the Gulf did not materialize.”
But not all the news was good. The foreign ministry’s reports also state Lebanese in Kuwait were voicing fears that labor market nationalization policies would push more expatriates out, while Lebanese residing in Qatar adjusted their spending habits in a sign of increased job insecurity. In Oman, “no Lebanese had filed for bankruptcy or was forced to leave. However, the report [indicated] that future work opportunities will be reduced due to the crisis.”
Even so, accounts given to Executive by human resource consultants and recruitment firms downplayed the effects of the crisis on the employment of Lebanese executives abroad. “In the last three years we only recruited one executive who had come back from the Gulf,” says Renalda Hayek, assistant general manager and head of the group human resources division at Byblos Bank. What has ostensibly occurred, however, is that the lines demarcating the Lebanese and the Gulf labor markets at the executive level have blurred, especially for those coming from Lebanon.
The demand for new Lebanese executive talent is by no means limited to Lebanese employers, as several multinational firms continue to turn to Lebanon in order to fill their regional executive positions. Global auditing firm KPMG’s endeavor to double the number of its staff globally in the next five years is one example, according to Malek Zebib, who holds the double role of general manager at KPMG Lebanon and head of training and development at KPMG Saudi Arabia.
“Our branches and partners in the Gulf always turn to Lebanon to find senior managers and executives,” says Zebib, adding that the well heeled Lebanese usually have the same skills as their Western counterparts, with the added benefit of being multilingual. Rana Ghandour Salhab, partner and head of talent and communication at Deloitte Middle East, says that while the tendency of hiring Western expatriates in the Gulf has continued, it has been complemented by an emerging trend of hiring native Arabic speakers, which includes Gulf nationals and also Lebanese.
“Our clients want people to understand not only the technical aspect of what they need, but also the environment they are in,” says Salhab.
Another noticeable trend in Lebanon is to hire executives who reside in Lebanon and service the entire region, as is the case of Zebib and Salhab themselves, who recruit new talent that is often tasked out to the region. This practice is not restricted to consultancies, according to Tina Kfoury, managing director of the executive search firm Business Lobby. “Lebanon is now an economic [operations] hub,” she says. “Certain multinational firms that do not have offices in Lebanon are outsourcing their regional distribution operations to people who work from home, while providing them with services such as a generator [for power cuts] or paying their telephone bills,” she added, referring to a multinational information technology firm that she did not wish to mention by name.
The Lebanese economy and job market is overwhelmingly slanted toward the trade and services sector, and away from productive sectors such as manufacturing. At present the service sector holds about 85 percent of wage-earning employees of all levels, as well 85.3 percent of the self-employed (see table on next page), according to an unpublished World Bank study obtained by Executive.
These figures — and the fact that the number of Lebanese factories employing more than eight workers has dropped from 3,673 to 3,125 between 2005 and 2011, according to a survey released by the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI) last September — help explain the short supply of manufacturing jobs, according to Ziad Bikdash, vice president of the ALI.
He added that positions for senior executives are not widely available in manufacturing. Instead, what Lebanese manufacturers have on offer are positions for fresh university graduates to work in their sales and marketing departments or as technicians, especially in the food processing industry. Kfoury confirms this trend, saying that manufacturing establishments are mostly family-owned businesses where a post in senior management is usually a position for life.
Construction will also be a limited destination for executives in 2012, according to Kfoury, despite being voted the second best sector to offer career growth in a survey conducted by the online employment forum Bayt. She says the number of senior positions on offer in construction is quite small, but do exist for mechanical, electrical and civil engineers. Where executives should be heading instead, it seems, is consultancy and auditing, especially if they have specialized skills.
“When you want a financial fraud expert, they’re not readily available,” says Deloitte’s Salhab. “When you want… executives that combine basic skills such as auditing, consulting or taxes with industry expertise, experts in consulting in the oil and gas or telecom industries; these talents are very hard to find.”
While a rare skill may afford an executive a prominent position in a consultancy firm, the expansion of the banking sector over the past several years has created an increasing demand for those whom one may not think fit behind the teller’s desk.
“The banking sector has changed a lot in the past five years… you see that more soft skills are needed; by soft I mean [skills] that are not necessarily related to mathematics and figures,” says Hayek of Byblos Bank. “We need a lot of people with [skills in] management, innovation, communication or sales. Our competitors [for staff] are not only banks; they could be magazines or television stations because we have journalists working with us.”
More than being at home
At some point in their careers though, many Lebanese do just want to come home. But despite the positive feedback concerning the availability of diverse positions, executives expecting to match the job they had abroad may still be in for a surprise. Those returning to Lebanon — desirable as it may be due to the familiarity with one’s native country — will still have to face up to the country’s inherent market dynamics. “There are so many of us [executives] out there and we all dream of coming back to Lebanon, but the market is somehow small… there will always be more supply than demand,” says Zebib from KPMG.
But instead of facing the disappointment of being offered a job that sometimes pays them less than half of what they earned outside the country, Kfoury suggests that entrepreneurship might be a safer route for returning executives, especially if they are approaching their 50s and losing employment flexibility. “These people should make use of the expertise they have gained abroad and establish a small business which might grow quickly,” says Kfoury, adding that this avenue has not been exploited to its full potential.
But opening a new business does not come without challenges in Lebanon. The 2012 Doing Business indicator, the World Bank’s global comparative index on the ease to start a new enterprise, shows that Lebanon’s rank fell from 104 to 109 out of 183 countries year-on-year. The main difficulties identified were concentrated in the areas of credit and resolving insolvency.
But Kfoury insisted that it is time to start looking at the glass as if it were half full. “I had to face the same choice when I started my own business, leaving a secure job while relying on a management team who had come from Australia and could have left me at any point,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to take the risk; you can’t only consider the inconveniences.”