The Diverse Landscape of American Expats in the Middle East

The Diverse Landscape of American Expats in the Middle East

In years past, most American expats left the country for political or philosophical reasons. American expats are commonly thought of as political dissidents relaxing at a Paris café writing poetry or sitting in a pub in London arguing about Keynesian economics over a few pints. Although this romantic view of American expats may still be relevant in some cases, the vast majority of Americans who are leaving the country today are doing so for much more practical reasons.

The economic collapse of 2008 resulted in many Americans moving overseas to take high-paying jobs with international corporations. This trend continues today, with record numbers of U.S. citizens moving overseas to find employment. Although many still choose Europe as a destination, an increasing number of Americans are venturing into the Middle East, where opportunities are abundant, incomes are high, and taxes are low. Although it is important to note that the United States taxes citizens worldwide, Americans living in Dubai and other low-tax cities will be paying a portion of their wages to the IRS.

What Countries In The Middle East Have The Most American Expats?

The U.S. government does not keep comprehensive records of American expats living overseas. Once every few years, they may release some numbers on the subject, but they are typically unreliable and incomplete.

Dubai: the king of expat havens in the Middle East
Dubai: reigns supreme as the king of expat havens in the Middle East.

However, one can get a better picture of the expat population by combining these numbers with internal data from foreign countries. The Migration Policy Institute commissioned a study using this strategy in mid-2013, and they have produced the most accurate numbers available today.

So, let’s take a look at their estimate of how many American ex-pats are living in Middle Eastern countries (Excluding active service members and diplomats).

CountryEstimated Number of American Expats
United Arab Emirates (UAE)55,000
Saudi Arabia7,000

In What Sort Of Industries Do American Expats Work in the Middle East?

This is another area in which the United States’s record keeping is lacking. It’s confounding that the U.S. does not keep track of where Americans are abroad or what they are doing in other countries. They seem to give much more scrutiny to those coming into the country than those leaving it, but alas, that’s a discussion best left to another article. The IRS keeps track of many Americans living overseas to ensure that they are paying their US taxes, but data is hard to come by.

Once again, we must rely on other organizations for this type of data. The Migration Policy Institute did a survey of 884 recent American expats and found that one-fifth worked in education – usually teaching English at high schools and universities on a freelance basis. Also, another fifth of the expats in the survey work in IT. There also appears to be a large contingent of ex-military personnel that remain in the Middle East after either their enlistment is up or they retire. These expats presumably work in advisory roles or in the security industry.

The study also conducted a survey of expats living in the Middle East that focused on more business professionals who have traveled to the region for generous tax-free expat salary packages. Although they did not focus solely on American expats, given the large number of Americans working in the region, we can deduce that these numbers apply to their experiences.

Here are their findings:

  • Energy and Mining: This sector has traditionally been a major draw for American expats, particularly in oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. Engineers, geologists, and technical professionals are in high demand.
  • Finance and Banking: The burgeoning financial hubs of Dubai and Doha attract American professionals in investment banking, asset management, and financial technology.
  • Education: American educators fill roles in universities, international schools, and private institutions throughout the region, contributing to its growing education sector.
  • Healthcare: As healthcare infrastructure expands, opportunities arise for American doctors, nurses, and administrators, especially in specialized fields like oncology and cardiology.
  • Technology and Media: The booming tech scene in the UAE and Qatar welcomes American software developers, IT specialists, and digital marketing professionals.
  • Construction and infrastructure development: Projects in major cities and tourist destinations create demand for American architects, engineers, and construction managers.
  • Hospitality and tourism: The luxury hotel industry and burgeoning travel sector offer opportunities for American chefs, managers, and event organizers.
  • Government and Non-Profit Organizations: American experts in diplomacy, development, and humanitarian aid work with local governments and international organizations in the region.

Why Do American Expats Choose the Middle East?

A study sheds some light on why expats choose the Middle East as a destination – lower taxes and a cheaper cost of living allows them to keep more of their own money to spend or save as they wish. However, one must look a bit deeper to understand why Americans, in particular, choose the Middle East over so many other possible destinations.

One reason is that expats from the West are at a premium in the region, and companies in the Middle East are willing to pay them more than any other group of expats in the world. According to a report from the Telegraph:

“A Western expat in Saudi Arabia is paid on average six percent more than an Arab expat and almost 30 percent more than an Asian one. Westerners sit top of the tree in all Gulf countries, while Asian expats are the lowest paid across the region.”

To fully understand why Americans work and live in the Middle East, however, it is best to ask the people who are actually doing it. Diane, an American expat from North Carolina living in Kuwait, describes why she chose to move abroad and what she is doing to make a living:

“I had completed my education and found myself seeking something challenging beyond the typical 9-5 workday. My primary function has been international Human Resources, but I also do consulting for government agencies and HR-related training for corporations and individuals abroad.”

Diane was seeking new and varied experiences, so she decided to leave America and venture to Kuwait. She appears to be doing quite well for herself. Not all Americans living in the Middle East enjoy the same freedoms as Diane, and not all expats enjoy their experience. One American expat in Saudi Arabia who wished to remain anonymous describes her life: 

“I moved to Saudi Arabia for my husband’s job. He took a job with a major oil-producing company that moved us to Dhahran. I am a stay-at-home mom with two kids. There are not many opportunities for expat women to work in Saudi Arabia, no matter how qualified they are. As a female in Saudi Arabia, I am not able to drive. That means anytime I want to leave camp, I need a driver, taxi, bus, or my husband. That is frustrating.”

This woman’s issue with being an American proves that there are two sides to the matter. Although the vast majority of American expats appear to be happy with their decision to move to the Middle East, some discover that their life abroad isn’t what they hoped it would be. This is why it is important to research the culture and customs of the country you are moving to before making the huge life decision of becoming an expat.

There are currently over 50,000 American expats living and working in the Middle East. There is a vibrant job market in the region, and American workers are at a premium. The economic climate is perfect for young professionals who want to see the world and make enough money to pay back those pesky student loan debts.

Just remember to do your research and don’t just take the first opportunity that presents itself. This is a big commitment, but it is one that can have innumerable personal and professional benefits.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.