The Tax Expat in the Gulf Cooperation Council

The implementation of VAT across the sunny GCC states – and the influx of European VAT professionals to the region. It has been a hot topic over the last two years (sorry, it had to be done!).

Some of the most frequent questions we’ve had across 2017-18 from our candidates looking to relocate is about life in the GCC. So this week on The Tax Expat, we’re pleased to be joined by Grant Thornton’s Tax Partner (Dubai), Steve Kitching, to talk to us about his move from Aberdeen to Bahrain to Dubai. Steve has shared some great experiences and tips, so be sure to give this one a read!

And if you missed our last edition of The Tax Expat, here’s our interview with Douglas MacKay (Head of Indirect Tax, APAC at Lear) about expat life in Shanghai.

Over to Steve…

Steve, thanks for joining us to share your experiences for The Tax Expat. I know you haven’t been an expat for too long now, but your recent experiences are certainly part of a very topical period in the indirect tax world as you’re right in the thick of the implementation of VAT across the GCC. Before we dive into this, perhaps you can start by telling tell us a few words about yourself.

Sure, I’m 51 years old and my hometown is Derby but I’ve lived in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire for the past 7 years, before moving out to The Kingdom of Bahrain for a completely different way of both living and working life. I’ve been working since I was 17, starting with Royal Mail as a counter clerk but quickly moving into Finance & Accounting, which is pretty much where I still am 34 years and several well-known companies later! I’m someone who does enjoy work and the many challenges it can bring. I take a lot of pride in what I do.

As of this month, I’ve just joined Grant Thornton as a Tax Partner in our Dubai office to drive our VAT offering forward. Before this, I spent the last 18 months leading the Indirect Tax team for BDO in Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. When I joined BDO, I was the only European across all 3 countries, which surprised me! I’m now part of a much larger VAT function and I’m excited for what the future holds!

Moving to Bahrain certainly was my biggest challenge both personally and mentally but, one year later, I’ve had many great experiences which I can take with me to new life in Dubai!

So, your big relocation story – Where does the story start & why did you consider relocating abroad?

I had seen many of my indirect tax contacts moving out to the GCC for the impending introduction of VAT. I’d always wanted to try living and working in a different country… I think we all like the idea and probably go for the more common European countries rather than the Middle East but Bahrain, Qatar and Oman are very much influenced by British enterprise and all still have very close links to the UK. Today, many of the Finance or Managing Directors I meet greatly respect UK knowledge and the experience of UK VAT professionals out here (in fact the VAT legislation is very similar to the EU/ UK law).

So when I spoke to my family on a cold winter’s day in Scotland that I had an offer to relocate and work in sunny Bahrain – where temperatures exceed 50°C during summer – they thought I was joking and my daughter even asked if I’d be safe out there! I admit, as the day got nearer, I did feel slightly apprehensive about flying out on a 16-hour one-way trip to Manana airport but, after working in the Oil & Gas sector in Aberdeen during which the downturn came (and many people I had got to know in both industry and practice lost their jobs), I knew I made the right decision to at least try it.

So I arrived here back on the 7 July 2017 and, yes, I was in for a tough few months of settling in. There were numerous challenges both personally and professionally but I think it’s good to face these and know that, if you believe in yourself and stay positive, you can overcome them.

Why did you choose to move to Bahrain?

All I knew about Bahrain was that the F1 motor race is held there – I knew nothing more than that! So it meant quickly googling all the latest news about Bahrain and life out here. I was aware of the Arab Spring uprising which affected many of the Gulf Countries (and in particular Bahrain). Also the close ties to Saudi Arabia, which is only physically connected to Bahrain via the impressive 16-mile King Faisal causeway. There was the option of actually being based in Oman but, as Bahrain has close UK links, it was the best option for me culturally.

Bahrain offers many unique opportunities for global professionals of any sector, and the open policy of visa means there are many different nationalities working here. Out of the population of 1.6m people living on the island of Bahrain, there are more ex-pats here than local nationals, which surprised me! And, many of the middle to senior manager positions are expats, mainly from India.

And having now left for Dubai, looking back how did you find life in Bahrain?

Very good question! I did struggle to begin with, arriving in the middle of summer with extreme temperatures over 55°C, and not knowing ANYONE. Or where to live in Bahrain was also particularly difficult, to begin with. I decided to live in Amwaj Islands (known as the floating city of Bahrain which is reclaimed land from the Arabian Sea) rather than living in a safe and secure expat compound which many opt to do. And each day, I’d drive the 25 mins / 3 kilometres into work (Sunday to Thursday is the working week) in some of the busiest and out-of-control driving you’ll ever see – you do need eyes in the back and sides of your head!

I’ve never been a fan of social media but, with everybody there using WhatsApp and Facebook, it was a wise decision for me to open an account and join social groups as a way of immersing myself. This was the real start to me settling in, mixing and meeting with both Western and Arab people. I find the Arab culture very welcoming, and always positively curious about my life in Bahrain. Some of my closest friends now are from Saudi or Bahrain. One of whom I met in a Sports bar whilst watching Newcastle! I sat next to him and a drunk English chap started picking on him and teasing him about the colour of his pink shirt. After I intervened and calmed the situation, Faria became a trusted friend who regularly drove across the causeway to meet me for lunch or to watch football.

What other things did you experience in Bahrain?

My other experiences in Bahrain include living on a beautiful desert island (Amwaj Islands) where I’d come back from work in the late afternoon and walk out across the road to swim in a clear blue lagoon in a warm clean salty calm sea.

And this aside, many are aware there is also a huge tax advantage to working there. Having been used to giving up 40% of my income in direct tax, 3% in National Insurance and 20% VAT on my purchases, almost 63pm in every £1 was lost to tax. In Bahrain there’s no income tax or VAT (not yet!), so that’s a massive difference to take my home pay. The cost of living is also cheaper here – a tank of petrol costs about £10 and phones, cars, and electrical equipment are much cheaper. That said, beer and wine are expensive – about £12 for an average bottle of wine and £6 a pint. Bahrain is the cheapest of the GCC countries to live in and is very diverse and open to ex-pats.

What’s been the biggest struggle in the whole process of your life in the GCC?

Easy one  – without doubt adjusting to a new culture. Living here differs from the UK in so many ways, but little things like the various ways you need to show respect, not reacting to the unpredictable driving, and acknowledging everyone you meet (even in a lift you say hello and have eye contact).

Being on my own and working long hours can physically drain you and, after my first 6 months, I had a bout of food poisoning and ended up in the hospital for a couple of days attached to a drip. I realized then that I had to make friends and proactively reach out to people more than I had been.

Now, I have a large circle of expats and local friends. We meet at least once a week but chat in a WhatsApp group daily. This, to me, has kept me going when it has been tough. As has my successes at work like winning new tax clients across the GCC for BDO. Expanding the VAT practice there had given me a great sense of pride knowing I was the first person to win tax clients for the firm. Now, I’ve got an exciting new role at Grant Thornton where I can continue this as a Partner.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about yourself since moving abroad?

Not to be so stubborn and accept the cultural differences. I struggled to see why certain things were done in a way which I found frustrating. Such as not being able to work from home, not having a company mobile, certain websites being regularly blocked, and the weather is too hot to go outside during summer days. Even Ramadan can be a testing time if you’ve never experienced it. I told myself that I must give it a complete year and then reflect. I almost left Bahrain to relocate to Barcelona but, on reflection, my life is in the GCC now. It feels like I’m so much more settled and do enjoy both my work and new friendships.

Steve, if you had your time again, what would you have done differently?

I think I spent too much time flying back and forth to the UK every other month. Also, I was in the mindset that working and living here would only be for a short term. I realize you must commit to a minimum 2-year period (for personal and tax reasons). Anything less than that would not be financially or socially rewarding.

There are so many new people from different parts of the world that work here and you have to immerse yourself to truly get to meet them. On reflection, I needed to embrace it sooner and try not to think about how my family are coping without me! I’m sure they’re managing just fine now and knowing that reassures me to relax more here!

So living away from the UK as an expat; is there anything that you miss in particular?

Family, of course, especially my granddaughter who was born a week after I came to Bahrain! Family aside, bacon and pork are sorely missed, as with UK TV such as local BBC Scotland and STV.

If you could turn back the time – would you have made the same move?

I’d do it again! And I’d recommend it to anyone willing to try it. You only live once and should therefore make the most of your working life. Out here it’s a fantastic experience in so many ways, which I did not appreciate until recently.

What advice can you share for other tax professionals who are considering a relocation abroad for their career?

Try and buddy up with someone in your new workplace who you can trust and who has the time to show you about. Let them take you to new places and try new things. Also, I found that finding a place to live quickly rather than stopping in hotels helps settle you in as it provides a firm base to start your new working life.

Don’t be afraid to go to new places – it’s very safe out here – there’s hardly any crime. My experience is that people want to help if you ask them. English and Arabic are both spoken by most nationals in Bahrain or Dubai. I remember one night coming out of a British club after watching Liverpool lose in the European Cup and I couldn’t remember where I’d parked my car. A local man stopped his car and drove me about until we located it! Bearing in mind the night temperature is 40°C and you can easily get lost as there with a lack of street signs, I appreciated this.

And finally, you’ve been in your new role as a Tax Partner at Grant Thornton Dubai for about 3 weeks now. First observations of the market so far?

It’s become very clear to me that across the GCC there’s plenty of demand for VAT experts (of all levels). I think, in time, we’ll see Practice staff gradually move into industry. Also, government tax positions as there’s still very little experience here. Here at GT, 2 members before I arrived joined the FTA in UAE and I see that this will keep happening.

My first day at the office was understanding the business plans for VAT. So, for now, I’m extremely excited about playing my role and driving this further.

It sounds like a rollercoaster of an experience, with some ups and downs, but it’s great to hear such a detailed account of your first year in Bahrain! And, of course, we wish you all the best for your new role in Dubai. To cap it off, how about a picture of the view from your balcony in Bahrain that you’ve told me about on several occasions?


Are you a Tax Expat? If so, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network. For more information, please contact Alex Mann.

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