How Many American Expatriates Live In The Middle East: And What Are They Doing There?

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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 that 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. And 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, thus 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.

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 expats are living in Middle Eastern countries: (Excluding active service members and diplomats) 

Where Do American Expatriates In The Middle East Live?

Israel: 80,000

Saudi Arabia: 36,000

Turkey: 20,000

United Arab Emirates: 16,000

Libya: 10,000

Egypt: 4,000

Kuwait 4,000

Qatar: 3,000

Jordan: 2,000

Bahrain: 1,000

Lebanon: 1,000

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

This is another area in which the United State’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 keep 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.

ExpatArrivals.com also conducted a survey of expats living in the Middle East that focused on more business professionals that 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:

Statistics On Job Types Of Expatriates In The Middle East

83% work in the private sector (most in the energy industry)

The most popular job for expats include: accountant, manager, engineer, executive, coordinator, and civil engineer.

98% of expats in Saudi Arabia claim to have more disposable income than they did working in their country of origin.

92% of expats in Qatar say they have more money left over at the end of the month than they did working in their home country.

94% of expats in the UAE say they pay less in taxes than they did in their country of origin.

Why Do American Expats Choose the Middle East?

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Andrew Slater, an American teacher in Iraq-Image Source: Here And Now

The study from ExpatArrivals.com 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 per cent more than an Arab expat and almost 30 per cent 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 American 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 expat 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 100,000 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.


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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences on ex-patriots living in The United States. XpatNation brings together the voices, thoughts, perceptions and experiences of the people of the world who have made the USA their home. Using their insight and unique understanding of the global world we live in to discuss culture, lifestyle, Geo politics and the day to day on-goings of this proud and powerful nation.

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