Crossing the Ocean Could Be Your Best Move
by Dave Kaiser
Overseas employment offers the opportunity to help those who need you desperately, but first you must help yourself to a careful plan.
Saudi farmers and bedouins who own camels frequently allow visitors to ride for a fee. These same farmers depend on local veterinarians when their animals fall ill. Camels, worth much more to Saudis than their $1,000 price tag, often stray from the herd only to be hit and injured by automobiles along desert roads. Farmers fatten their sheep and goats for months prior to the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. During that time, they rely heavily on veterinarians to help their animals meet tight government restrictions.
Despite what you’ve heard about the manpower surplus in veterinary medicine, there are still some places where people are clamoring for practitioners. Saudi Arabia is one of them. Owners of agricultural projects, farms, and community veterinary hospitals there can offer you some lucrative employment options, but only when you take the necessary precautions in advance.
American veterinarians are in particular demand in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom is in the process of establishing extensive animal husbandry projects designed to end the country’s dependence on imported meats. These projects require the importation of valuable breeding stock which must be treated for any ill effects of moving to a new climate, and which require observation because of the new foods and desalinated water on which they will be raised.
Projects now underway include huge poultry farms situated on previously unused arid lands; reclamation projects in which arid lands are first cultivated and then opened to dairy, beef cattle, sheep, and goats; and fish farms raising a variety of fish for local consumption. The salary range for American veterinarians averages 50 to 100 percent more than for comparable positions in the United States. And veterinarians working for overseas corporations often establish their own practices and work two jobs at once, enabling many to double their income.
In addition to these projects, there are many opportunities for veterinarians working and living in Saudi Arabia to develop a clientele of their own. No matter where you might be assigned, there are always local farmers who are happy to have a doctor available to treat their stock, many small-scale farmers depend on this livestock for their livelihood.
Although it’s commonly thought that ownership of domestic animals is not encouraged in Saudi Arabia, foreigners working there routinely adopt local pets, which usually require frequent and intensive medical treatment. The well-paid owners of these animals are generally happy to provide it. Wealthy Saudis often import pedigreed pets or raise herds of valuable Arabian horses which must have frequent physical examinations. High level executives and diplomats also are often permitted to bring their household pets as an encouragement to work there.
It is, in fact, quite popular for well-to-do Saudis to own their own zoos. These can range from a simple assortment of cages containing monkeys and exotic birds, to more elaborate displays that include lions, tigers, leopards, and exotic species obtained from Africa, Europe, Pakistan, India, and Asia. Local veterinarians who moonlight from full-time jobs are often retained by these zoo owners.
Area department stores often include pet centers with animals on display that may have been illegally exported from their country of origin and legally imported into Saudi Arabia. Although these animals represent a costly investment for department stores, they are often mistreated or neglected while on display. And when the animals are transferred to private zoos, they need immediate medical attention.
Get it in Writing
One big advantage of working overseas is the tax break you’ll get. In Saudi Arabia it’s up to $90,000 in earnings each year. Most foreign workers, and expecially those whose housing and transportation is provided, find that if they restrict their expenses and traveling, they can accumulate substantial savings. It would be wise, though, to check with your tax adviser about the timing of your move. Many who have accepted jobs, for instance, find out only after their arrival that their tax year is based on a calendar year and because of the timing they are liable for income tax payments until the end of that calendar year.
Another surprise you’ll want to avoid is the old bait and switch. Many firms in the Middle East are notorious for painting an extremely attractive picture of their operation, offering extravagant salaries and fringe benefits – only to change their terms when the new employee arrives at the job site. So before signing the normal two-year contract, make sure that everything is spelled out in writing. Contracts negotiated with Arab-owned firms are often written in Arabic, so don’t sign anything until it is translated into English. Even then, sign only the English version after you have read it thoroughly and obtained a copy.
The contract should clearly state your salary, raise schedule, term of commitment, and all fringe benefits. It should also describe your daily work routine. Many employees sign up for what looks like a good salary, only to discover later that they are expected to work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Most foreign firms conduct business six days a week, with those offering more benefits working only half a day of Saturday, but few offer overtime pay unless it is specified in advance, either by the contract agreement or the country’s labor laws.
As a precaution, request to see recent photographs of the area where you’ll be working and living. What are termed ‘first class’ accommodations in many foreign operations often turn out to be fourth class or lower by United States standards.
Employees who bring their spouses should also be careful to ask for and include their benefits in the contract, making sure that the company will pay for medical care, drugs, hospitalization, and transportation expenses during vacations and when their contract has expired. If possible it should be specified in the contract exactly what type of medical treatment is expected.
In many Middle Eastern countries the trend is to import workers from India, Pakistan, Africa, the Philippines, and other Third World countries in an attempt to find employees willing to accept lower wages. If you are offered an extravagant salary for a position that could easily be filled by this type of worker, scrutinize the offer as closely as possible.
Where Will You Live?
If your potential employer offers you living quarters on the company compound, think about the advantages of such a life. Even under these circumstances, it’s advisable to ask for photos of the compound on which you and your family will live, keeping in mind that the promised “recreational facilities,” for example, could consist of a dilapidated picnic table.
Most of the compounds run by large companies in the Middle East are, in fact, what they claim to be, offering acceptable quarters, bus services, tennis courts, and pools – but at the same time some have been around a little too long, and would best be renovated by the wrecking ball.
It’s not unusual, on some compounds, to encounter employees who have been in a given country for many years and who have only left the compound when they return home for their month-long annual leave. And while some thrive in an environment that provides everything, others find such a life boring because they feel deprived of local culture. A good compromise is to have housing provided by the company or to receive an annual housing allowance while living in the community.
In some Middle Eastern countries, housing is scarce and apartments that even come close to American standards can cost $15,000 to $20,000 a year, payable in full, in advance, thank you. And even under those terms, you provide such improvements as carpeting, appliances, and furniture. Due to high shipping costs, these items can be 10 times as expensive as they are back home.
Another key question, and one often ignored by novices, is the question of adjusting to the culture in the particular area. If your family is planning to accompany you to a foreign country for a prolonged period of time, it’s first necessary to familiarize yourself with local customs and decide whether your family will be able to make the necessary adjustments.
In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a wife who is used to driving herself around town may have a serious problem adjusting. Buses, taxi cabs and drivers are readily available, but some women, who’ve been used to driving all their lives, just cannot accept having this privilege taken away from them. Also in Saudi Arabia, teenagers are prohibited from living permanently with their families. Even if the teenager is a high school age girl or boy, it’s necessary to have them board at a school, with only limited visitation allowable. Some families are not willing to give up these freedoms just for additional financial benefits.
Money? Bring Plenty
Even after you’ve done your homework, seen photos of everything, and signed your contract, there are still a few precautions to take. In foreign countries, employees are usually paid once a month. If you arrive during the first week of the month, that means your first pay day may not come for 50 days. Take enough cash or travelers checks, therefore, to cover your expenses until you are paid.
No matter what you take with you in the way of household goods, you are sure to need funds to buy incidental items. Shipping and airline costs for these items should be paid by your employer, and such deliveries often take months. Many items, like television sets and appliances, are better left at home. In most foreign countries transmission frequencies are totally different, so that American sets will prove to be just decoration. You should also check on the type of electrical current available where you are going. It will probably be the wrong voltage for the appliances you won. If you need appliances, buy them after you arrive. Most of the typical appliances available in Saudi Arabia, for instance, at cheaper prices than at home because there are no import fees or taxes.
Americans are also used to traveling heavy, but with overseas airlines charging an average of $5 to $8 per pound for overweight baggage you may want to reconsider. You are allowed a total of 40 pounds per person on airline flights, so if you wish to take more, be sure your employer will pay the excess charges which can run into thousands. It is also advisable to have it spelled out in your contract that the employer will pay for your transportation home and all expenses to ship household goods home when your contract has expired. If you take it for granted that transportation and shipping expenses will be paid by your employer, when your contract expires you may have to leave behind more than you’d prefer. Sometimes a deadline of several days is all you’ll have to dispose of your belongings, and even if you’ve served your employer well for a prolonged period of time, you could be confined to quarters until you produce an exit visa.