CAIRO // On a good day, when traffic is light and luck is on his side, Sayyid Mohammed, a Cairo taxi driver, can earn 200 Egyptian pounds (Dh137.75) - hardly enough to support his family of four, but more than he was making two years ago. While he dreams of getting a visa to live in America or Europe, he says the Gulf is just not on his radar. "My brother used to live in Abu Dhabi, but he just moved back to Egypt," said Mr Mohammed. "Salaries are decent there, but life is so expensive. It is better for me to stay here."
The cost of living in the GCC is outstripping salary increases, causing many Egyptians who once sought well-paid jobs in the Gulf to set their sights on domestic opportunities. Despite Egypt's soaring inflation, higher salaries and better opportunities have given the domestic job market a competitive edge. "We actually have a problem placing people overseas because salaries for skilled workers are becoming so high in Egypt and the gap or differential of going to the Gulf is not what it was before," said Sherif Samy, the managing director of Skill-Link, a Cairo-based recruitment company. "The Gulf needs mainly white-collar professionals, but it is more difficult to attract them because their salaries don't get them as far there as they do here."
In a survey released earlier this year by the market researcher, YouGovSiraj, salary rises throughout the GCC were found to lag behind perceived cost of living increases. The disparity was most pronounced in Qatar, with a perceived average cost of living increase of 38 per cent, which was 22 per cent higher than salary increases. In Dubai, living expenses were perceived to have risen by 37 per cent, representing a gap of 20 per cent.
"This is true from a realistic perspective and from a perceived perspective," said Nassim Grayab, the chief executive of YouGovSiraj. "Salaries are not keeping up with cost of living increases in the Gulf, particularly for those making average salaries." Gone are the days when Egypt's white-collar professionals were forced to compete for just a few jobs, or were driven out by a lack of opportunities. Companies here now vie for attention from potential recruits. According to industry figures, monthly salaries of 5,000 pounds to 15,000 pounds for qualified early career candidates in fields including investment banking, marketing and sophisticated manufacturing are fast becoming the norm. Similarly, higher level executives can command monthly salaries well over 60,000 pounds.
Even in Egypt's public sector, which is notorious for low pay, wages have improved. In May, the Egyptian government, pressured by social unrest over high food and fuel prices, sanctioned a salary increase of 30 per cent for government workers. However, Mr Samy added that one major problem hindering progress was the discrepancy between education levels and salaries in Egypt. For example, the starting monthly salary for a bank cashier four years ago was between 600 pounds and 800 pounds.
Now, as banks double their retail networks, demand for staff has pushed starting salaries to 2,000 pounds per month. Meanwhile, medium-sized companies in Egypt continue to recruit engineers for as little as 800 pounds per month. "Health care, media and education get the lowest salaries," Mr Samy said. "You shape the minds of the nation through education and media, and you take care of them through health care, yet these are the lowest paying sectors in Egypt. It's an irony, but a fact."
Another issue facing the Arab world's most populous country is the growing number of low-skilled labourers. According to industry analysts, Egypt's unskilled workers have never appealed to Gulf companies because they require higher pay than labourers from the Indian subcontinent. "What we want to sell is unskilled workers to the Gulf," said Samy. "[But] you are more likely to get a labourer from the subcontinent who speaks English than you are from Egypt. That is attractive to companies in the Gulf, so we lose the competition." More than two million Egyptian expatriates currently live in the GCC, the overwhelming majority of whom are based in Saudi Arabia. Mr Grayab said that, while he had not yet seen a massive exodus of Egyptians to their homeland, the current economic conditions made this a very perceivable reality.
"When we ask people if they would consider leaving the GCC, a big percentage have answered that they are thinking of going home," he said. "But the reality is that inflation is hitting everywhere so there is no relief for people, wherever they go." firstname.lastname@example.org