The Middle East Option

Western academics can find good positions and plenty of the comforts they crave (with a better standard of living) far from home, writes William Roden.

February 8, 2012

"Thank [you] for your applying for a position at The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. We have received your application, and forwarded [it] to the appropriate department where it will be given serious consideration.”

"It’s exciting to see so many candidates applying for the position and we look forward to reviewing the applications." [Recent letter to a faculty candidate].

I presume most of us would not expect “so many candidates” applying for a faculty post in Iraq.  

True, Iraq is not Kansas, but as Napoleon is claimed to have said, “Geography is destiny,” meaning that we can be intellectually limited by where we live. Academic professionals, thanks to expanding views of the world and a bleak unemployment picture in the United States, are now looking elsewhere.

While some countries in the Middle East appear volatile, many are safe. For example, the United Arab Emirates is very Western, crime-free and secure. Abu Dhabi, with its seven-star hotels and Western enticements, has hosted numerous Western celebrities on its indoor ski slopes, while Dubai boasts the world’s tallest building.

Enough of the sights, though. What would an administrator or faculty candidate gain by applying to say, the American University of Dubai? For one, the campus setting is attractive; technology is the latest, and problems of funding seem nonexistent. For the Western candidate, there are good salaries, quality health insurance and paid plane fare back home each year. Western faculty and staff members (Americans, Brits, Australians) are flown to the UAE and provided either modern housing or a handsome housing allowance. Their families are even provided reimbursement for private school tuition.  

There are malls that put most others to shame, modern highways, and, oh, everyone on campus speaks English. Classes throughout the Middle East (at least those institutions with an international reputation) are all taught in English.  

Holiday breaks are frequent and other parts of the globe are very accessible. No, Western women need not be covered for the most part (Saudi Arabia is the exception). Westerners can buy homes and cars, and the beach is available 12 months a year.  

The exposure to another culture is perhaps not life-changing, but clearly perspective-changing. Your colleagues from the region will provide another look at not only their Middle East, but at the U.S. as well.

What if my family and I want to take a chance and go?

If the Middle East is an option for you, here are some initial observations:

  • Middle Eastern universities still require the Ph.D. An Ed.D would be O.K. for administrative jobs. As with American searches, hiring committees over there want to hire someone like them. Although you might be interviewed by Middle Eastern or British Ph.D.s, "ring knockers" still look for other "ring knockers."
  • Should you get an interview, you can expect to endure the rather unwieldy Skype or MSN Messenger. Tips here: Do not use a headset (you look like a loser at an Internet café); expect audio and other technology problems; wear a tie. Yes, even faculty in the Middle East are expected to wear them.
  • Middle Eastern university types are very skeptical of certifications; do not list them if you are not current in your field. This is especially true in the IT area. There will most likely be a ringer who will know more about CISCO than CISCO would interviewing you.
  • Many in the region worry that academic credentials are false. In developing nations, transcripts from phony institutions or phony transcripts from real institutions are available for pocket change. Be ready and comfortable with providing official copies of transcripts. Once hired, you will have to get them "certified" over there through a burdensome bureaucratic process, but you do this only one time. 
  • While you should leave your ego at the door when interviewed by peers, keep in mind that many Middle Eastern academics revere titles and will ask about those you have held, "glitzy" research or projects you have shepherded. Again, be ready to be grilled on these if you list them.
  • Trust me: Middle Eastern hiring officials place Western faculty and administrators at the top of their wish list! Because classes are taught in English, there is a desire that a native speaker be in front of their students. Other nationalities that speak English have been terminated because their accents were in the way.
  • Online degrees? Forget it. Colleges and universities in the Middle East do not recognize these degrees and will not certify them at their end. Sorry.
  • Cover Letter: a balancing act; you need to emphasize accomplishments, not duties, but do not appear to be puffing out your chest. Drop names of well-known colleagues or places (Harvard, et al.) where you delivered a paper, etc.
  • Reference Letters: You need them. Frankly, I think they are silly, (unless your referee says you found a cure for the common cold). But again, they speak to the credibility of you as a good hire).
  • Critical: For most faculty posts, you must have teaching experience (at least three years). Don’t   mumble about graduate assistant teaching – it will not count. 
  • Do not be offended by gender-only ads. A number of college campuses and universities are segregated by gender as you might expect. Western female candidates are otherwise treated the same as their male counterparts.
  • Age? Yes, you will be asked, and unlike the United States, it’s not illegal. At many universities in the Middle East, when looking for faculty members, anyone over 50 is old, but Westerners are given a pass here if their credentials are in demand.
  • While U.S.-based institutions follow nondiscriminatory requirements, many Middle Eastern colleges and universities do not come under these rules. A faculty member’s religion and or sexual orientation may be an issue for Westerners at some institutions. Enough said.

Who is hiring?

I find the UAE to be the best place to start: it seems to have higher compensation and the “Western freedom” of the place certainly works well for first-timers to the Middle East. Close your eyes any Saturday morning and you would think you were in Houston. The Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), a two-year and four-year degree granting institution, with campuses across the country, has been in existence for more than 20 years and provides the most organized recruiting process as well as handsome salaries.  

Research institutions such as Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (KUSTAR), with programs in aerospace and biomedical engineering, provide an innovative environment for doctoral types holding research credentials. The Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), a combination of secondary, postsecondary and tertiary institutions, is the most progressive and student-centered. It has received SACS accreditation (first outside of the US), and boasts a new Polytechnic offering creative programs in nuclear and semiconductor technology.  

The private “American University in…” institutions offer beautiful campuses and good salaries, and you can expect an American approach to hiring and promotion. These respected institutions are located throughout the Middle East, from Dubai to Beirut to Cairo.  

Then there is "job security." Most faculty and staff contracts are for three years. I would suggest enjoying the ride for as long as you can. Some of my colleagues have spent 15 years in the UAE, some two semesters.  

Salaries: You can expect an assistant professor to make a base salary of $50-80,000. Seasoned administrators can make $200-300,000 as presidents, or "directors," as they are called. At those levels, the office politics can be brutal, as they appear to be in the States. They will live in large villas with a Mercedes in the driveway, and fly first-class.

The benefits of working in the Middle East far outweigh the liabilities. If you check the jobs at Inside Higher Ed, you will find countries advertising that are safe and quite accommodating to Westerners.  

Be prepared to enjoy the latest technology, very bright colleagues, and hot temperatures to be sure, but also experiences that will make you the Middle East expert back home.     



William Roden has served in a number of senior posts in the United Arab Emirates: executive director of the Military Language Institute, principal at the Institute of Applied Technology, and deputy director (provost) for Fatima College of Health Sciences. In the United States, he has served as a technical college president, college lawyer and professor. 


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