Unemployed – from Europe to the Arab world, a personal story




Hi everyone, and welcome to this episode of Compensation Insider. Today, I want to talk about a story, which I already published a few years ago. It has generated a lot of engagement with the readers of the blog : I wrote about me facing unemployment in my life. At the time I was reacting to one of my colleagues who had written a blog post about unemployment in the Arab world and how being unemployed was sometimes socially loaded and badly perceived. He was asking for feedback on experiences. So here’s my story.

The first time I was unemployed was at the end of my studies, before I found my first job. I had just graduated from one of the very good Business schools in France, with a specialisation in HR, and I was eager to “get in” and prove myself. Yet, at the time in 1993 there was a mini-recession and instead of being offered 4 jobs before even graduating like the students in previous years, on average students from my school had to wait 4 to 6 months before getting their first job offer.

Young graduate and unemployed

I was no exception.

At the time, looking for a job was very different. No internet, no social media, no LinkedIn, Monster or Bayt. You had to read newspapers, and send a handwritten “lettre de motivation” (cover letter) along with a print out of your resume by regular mail, often to a specific person (with their name). You also, in most cases, received a reply back, even when it was negative.

Job hunting was a time-consuming and expensive exercise, and a slow one too.

Some things were the same. With the economic weakening, companies were very cautious to offer jobs to young, inexperienced graduates. They wanted people with experience, not a young woman with only 4 internships even if they were productive and in prestigious organisations. And the experienced candidates who happened to be unemployed were not so much better off because, like today, companies preferred to recruit “passive candidates”, the ones who were still working.

From that point of view, my experience was probably very similar to that of many young Arabs in today’s world. Educated, sometimes with a bit of relevant experience acquired through internships. Often still living with their parents, which reduces the burden in part…. but increases it in other ways.

Parents worry about their kid’s future. After a while, they wonder whether it’s your fault : are you too picky, do you make enough efforts to look for the job or are you being a bit careless (if not downright lazy), why don’t you take just anything that comes your way even if it’s not in your chosen field (as if “anything” really does show up by the way…), what will our friends think if our child is not successful etc…

I believe in the Arab world, the last point is compounded by cultural expectations and the pressure to “look good” in front of society, no matter what. Plus, in many cases, young Arab men can’t really get married until they have a stable job and income. So being unemployed has an even bigger societal and personal impact on the youth in the region.

I was lucky – or stubborn 😉 and resisted my family’s pressure to look for a job in merchandising or finance, or just about anything, “just to get a job”. I eventually landed my first role at Airbus. The job was in HR, my chosen field of specialisation, and it launched my career.

Losing my job – twice

In this 28-year career so far, most of the times, the decision to part ways with a company was mine, including when I left my employer in order to set up my independent training and consulting company in International Compensation & Benefits in Dubai.

Yet, twice, I was laid off and ended up being unemployed. The first time was at the end of 2001. I was working for a company that supported the airline industry. Not a good place to be right after 9/11 when no-one wanted to be on a plane and the whole industry crashed at lightning speed !

The second time was in 2009 when the consequences of the global crisis were hitting even otherwise very healthy organisations – so, along many others in those days, I lost my job.

In 2001, to be honest I did not panick much.  I was barely 30 years-old, with no dependent family, and with good skills. The crisis was only in my industry, not a general one. So I basically took a little bit of time off, and within a few weeks I was back on track with what turned out to be an even better opportunity to lead C&B EMEA for Apple. In the end, this layoff was a blessing in disguise, and the 2-month unemployment stint was more of a vacation than anything else. However, I did feel there was a lot of social stigma in being unemployed, and a form of pity too.

In 2009 it was a different story. I was working in the UAE at the time, and had to leave the country at the end of my grace period – I didn’t want to do “visa runs” as I always felt this is a grey area for EU citizens to remain in the country. The crisis was global this time, so the phone was not ringing with job opportunities like it used to.

How the 2009 world of unemployment was different from previous crises

No-one who was employed dared to leave their job, and I had a distinct feeling that because I was unemployed, some of my friends would be more hesitant in seeing me…. Maybe they were scared that being unemployed is contagious like the flu and they can “catch it” by spending some time with me ? There was also a lot more of pitying this time, as everyone was aware of how difficult it was to get back into a job – and most people could do nothing to help as there were no openings.

Luckily, I already had in mind the idea of creating my consulting company, so I was able to focus on learning new skills such as preparing a business plan, reading about marketing for consultants, and setting up my structure in France. Still, some people, including in my closest family, felt I was saying “I want to create my company” as a way to deny my status of not being employed.

Even though I knew I had survived being laid off a first time already, so I could “do it” again, it was more difficult this second  time. The social toll was heavier. I felt more pressure to take a job, any job, just for the sake of it. I also quickly realised that being based in the french countryside was also not very helpful when you are targeting clients in the Middle East (especially in a pre-Covid era, where remote work was far from being accepted). So when I had the chance to return to Abu Dhabi with a prestigious organisation, I grabbed it and took it as “my last corporate role”, a side-step to establishing my structure in the UAE… which I eventually did, only a bit later than initially planned 🙂

The GCC-specific pressures of being an unemployed expat

In the GCC specifically, as an expat, there is the added pressure of not being able to stay in the country, even if you feel this is now your home, and where you want to continue to live. In the past, some of my friends who lost their jobs had to leave the country at short notice, ruining the school year of their kids and making the children have to re-do the same class the following year, which in itself bears some social stigma, at least in certain social circles in Europe.

Plus one of the major differences between the GCC and the Western world, and especially Europe, is that there is no such thing as an unemployment scheme or even some kind of emotional system or support. So no financial support when you end up without a job.

And, a lot of times, people feel extra pressure because they’re supporting a whole family ecosystem back in their home country. Those who are not coming from Europe in particular, tend to send a lot of money back home, so their financial status affects more than their direct family nucleus.

However I can say that with the COVID crisis starting in 2020, I saw that the government in the UAE has learned a lot : they gave people the chance to stay until the end of 2020 without having to pay fines, even if their visa had expired. That was a really, really smart move on the part of the government to say, “We have some people who have skills, who have experience. They’re here. We might have as well let them stay here for a little while”. Let those people stay without having to pay a fine, and maybe they can find another job and the country won’t lose that talent.

A positive evolution in perception ?

Out of all this chaos and social burden, I believe one small positive thing has emerged though.

The word “unemployed” is not as shameful as it used to be.

With widespread unemployment, society at large is putting less of a moral judgment on the personal qualities or supposed “defects” of the person who is unemployed. When nearly 30% of young Saudis are unemployed, it can’t be because they are all “bad”, “lazy” or “clueless”. Society now accepts that being unemployed does not necessarily mean that you were incompetent at your job or did something legally or morally wrong and were terminated.

And we’ve seen more of that shift during the COVID crisis.

Compared to the 2008/9 crisis, we see a lot more solidarity between people, a lot more support, a lot more acceptance on the part of hiring managers about why people might have stopped to work and so on.

We still have some kind of social pressure to make money, and we tend to define our identities through a job, but I find that the moral stigma of being unemployed is not as important as in the past. The negative perceptions (of personal values and behaviors) associated with being unemployed are starting to recede and become less important and less visible in society.

I hope that sharing my story will help. A lot of people think that I have a good career :  I’ve been Global Head of Performance and Reward at two large multinationals. I’ve been an independent consultant since 2013, still around, getting clients. That’s what people see.

They don’t necessarily see that I might not have had such a good experience at times. And yes, you can have a career and have some times where things are not as easy, and it’s still a good career overall.

So I hope that if at the moment you’re struggling to find a job, this will give you hope. I’m always open to discuss with anybody, so don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here and I will try to help. Most likely, I can’t find you a job, but I try to help in any way that I can. Thank you so much and see you next week. Bye.

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  1. Thank you Sandrine for sharing with us your personal experience with unemployment. And I commend you for your bravery to come out and share with us what you have experienced, I say ‘brave’ as it has dawned on me that many people are ashamed to admit it for one reason or the other. I am sure many would relate to your story. Unemployment is not only exclusive to the Arab world, unfortunately it has also become widespread in Europe and the rest of the world too. I have a theory about unemployment, and that is almost everyone should experience it at some point of time in their lives. I think going through unemployment, learning from the experience and finally surviving it will humble many of us, and most importantly -and hopefully- allow us as members of community, as employers or as policy-makers to relate to the unemployed. Once again, thank you for a wonderful post!

    • Sandrine Bardot says

      Dear Talib,
      You are right – many people still feel “ashamed” of being, or having been in the past, unemployed. That’s why I wanted to share my story. It happened to me 3 times, and it did not prevent me from having a fulfilling career and opportunities in my work life.
      I fully agree with you that once you experience it, you put a “human face” to it as you said your great MBC article.
      Hopefully this will help all those involved in decision-making around employment issues, as well as all families and friends, to be more understanding of the issue and treat it as a human one, not just a statistics one.
      Thanks a lot for inspiring my post today !

  2. Great Article Sandrine, I was laid off once for reasons that I still don’t agree with (even until today) but it is what it is, although I have expected it to happen but its very different when it actually DOES happen… I felt like shit especially when I had to share with my wife (who was very supportive), I wasn’t worried about myself as much as I was about her…. 🙂 …. I had to go into the “consultant” phase as I have had no choice and actually had 2 long term projects … financially I was ok … but stability-wise it just wasn’t there …

    I realized no matter how strong, experienced and mature you are … no one, literally no one is immune to lack of confidence … but the main differentiator is how quickly can you get up and “get your act together”… people react differently to being laid-off and how severe the trauma and complexity is varies from one person to another … some try to victimize themselves, some go to denial, some to anger etc… but eventually all go to “acceptance phase” where we have no choice but to do something about it …

    • Sandrine Bardot says

      Yes – there is always a shock to losing your job, even when you had a sense of anticipation about it.

      When I lost my job in 2001 just after 9/11, I thought I was fine. I quickly found a new role, and actually took the time off I’d been needing for a long time.

      So in my mind I was perfectly OK.

      Until one of my closest friends, who had also been laid off at the same time from the same company, had an issue with her new employer. She’s been hired as HR Manager for a company, and had worked on a complex project which took her 6 months to complete. She was still on probation period (it can go up to 6 months in that country, and many companies routinely ask for the full probation, so there was no worrying sign there). And then on the last day of the probation period, at 4.30pm she was told (verbally only) not to come back the next day.

      She called me in panick, not knowing what to do and anxious to share her grief.

      To cut a long story short, it turned out that the employer had been looking for someone to manage this project on a fixed-term contract, couldn’t find anyone, and so advertised the job as a permanent one. All the while, fully aware fromt he start that they would let go the poor person who got the job thinking it would be a permanent one !

      Isn’t this behaviour disgusting on the part of an employer ???!!!

      In any case, at that point in time I was fully secure in a great job at Apple. But then my friend called me and shared her terrible experience with me. I did my best to support her, both from a practical/legal advice, as well as morally.

      But this thing happening to her had a big impact on me too. For 2 months, I had nightmares – situations where I was helpless and losing control, like being on a ship that was sinking, falling from a cliff etc.

      No need for a degree in psychology to see that I was reacting to the shock of unemployment, even though I had escaped it with barely a scratch at the time…

      I thought I was in the “over with it” phase but clearly my subconscious mind was still struggling with the emotional impact.

      I hope that by sharing this experience, some of the readers will understand that their reactions are perfectly normal, and that it will take some time to get over the disturbing feelings they may have.

  3. The word Unemployed pops up anywhere and i click and see whats happening with others in a state similar to mine. Maybe it is my way of making myself feel better that i am not the only one or maybe i look out for ideas or a hope to search for avenues i may not have thought of.

    Having worked in HR for 6 years in Karachi, i relocated to Brussels in Feb 2012 due to my husbands job reassignment. French being the primary language in Bxls i was not too lucky with my job search, not to forget the haunting percentage of joblessness in Europe. I enrolled myself at Alliance Francais to learn french however Bonjour, tu vas bien did not exactly land me a job. Surprisingly enough, i still would receive calls from headhunters asking me about my level of fluency in French or Dutch.
    I utilized my time off to travel extensively while studying french and doing some volunteer work on the side.

    After one year and two months another job reassignment for my husband landed us here in Dubai in April, 2013. The mere thought of relocating to Dubai with no language barrier and a part of the world that had recovered from recession made me think of countless job opportunities and job offers that would easily end up in my mailbox leaving me puzzled with which one to accept. Eight months today and poof the imaginary bubble burst. Having applied to 200+ jobs online, having made calls to several headhunters, approaching random people on linkedin, i ended up with just one interview and 3 calls from headhunters so far.

    I just could not believe it first. I read several articles about how to find a job, re-wrote my cv and cover letter, spoke to people for advice on how to go forth. The feedback i received so far from those who actually spared a minute to read my cv was that the two years of career gap that i now have due to relocation and no GCC experience is really the cause for not being picked up as there are hundreds of thousands of CVs lying with headhunters and online portals with much attractive candidates who are currently employed and have GCC experience to top it up.

    Bottom line, i have not given up hope yet. I even started looking at business opportunities in the region. I am more open to finding a job, be it an entry level position or a department not of my choice. Thanks to my husband’s stable job that i am financially well taken care of and am comfortably living here with a husband sponsored visa. However i cant wait to live the DUBAI DREAM =)

  4. Hi Sandrine,

    Great post and readers’ comments.

    In countries where employment visa holds the key for one’s existence, not having a sponsored job is literally having to put one’s life on hold. If it is due to being let-go off the job, then one is left with barely 28-30 days grace period within which to organize a new job for things to fall into place. Meanwhile, everyone in the family is affected, children education, social ties, accommodation renewal, even getting new cheque books from your bank if the employment visa is cancelled or not renewed.

    Expats now have the option of owning their business and visas by investment, but I wonder how many have the expertise, intent and finance to successfully sustain the business. There might be latent entrepreneurial talent surfacing and also possible to have some ‘forced’ entrepreneurs as a result.

    I have heard of families and individuals decide to return to home country in case an alternative job does not come up in the stipulated time. This might be the best option as ultimately peace of mind is worth the shift even though temporary adjustment is a must. Family support is crucial throughout the change phase. After all a contract of employment stipulates a 30-day notice with pay, so one is already prepared. However, the visa issue elevates the panic at the thought of having to leave the country suddenly even after years of service.

    • Thanks Lakshmi. I agree with all your points.

      In particular, your comment on “I wonder how many (can) successfully sustain their business” for those who decide to stay through creating a company rings a bell to me. Setting up my boutique firm specialising in training and consulting in C&B was a decision which I mulled over for a few years before actually resigning from my last corporate job.

      Even though I read a lot about the skills required and had done about a lot of thinking on the types of clients and services I wanted to offer, reality turned out quite different from what I had envisioned. I can imagine that someone who creates a company out of “panic” in order to stay while looking for a permanent job may be totally surprised at the amount of work, dedication, and the new skills required in order to find new clients and be able to sustain that income for however long they wish or need (until a permanent job comes up, or to remain independent).


  1. […] Sandrine Bardot: Unemployed – From Europe To The Arab World, A Personal Story A very interesting post from “very French” blogger Sandrine, here. Sandrine presents a fascinating and highly personal overview of how “the social toll” of unemployment and perceptions of the unemployed have changed over the past two decades. She arrives at a positive, thought-provoking conclusion, arguing that “out of all the chaos and social burden” of recent economic upheavals, “one small positive thing has emerged.” Please read Sandrine’s post to find out just what this silver lining is! Follow Sandrine on Twitter. […]

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