HOW TO: WORK IN BEIRUT

I assume, if you’re reading this, that you didn’t move to Beirut for work. Maybe your partner was transferred, or you were ready for a life change and Lebanon seemed like a good place to get it. Now you’re here and you need to make ends meet.

Sit down – no really, this may take a while – and take in four steps to finding a job in Beirut.

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Step 1: Manage your expectations

I don’t know what your expectations are for finding a job, but adjust them. You may arrive armed with the perfect CV, years of experience and a sharp pantsuit, but that doesn’t mean landing a gig will be easy.

The first obstacle is language. Skip ahead if you’re fluent in Arabic – this doesn’t apply to you. If you’re a French teacher from Paris or an English copywriter from New York, you might have better luck than other foreigners. Your native language skills can be in surprisingly high demand in Beirut. But if you’re a dentist, not being able to converse with patients can be problematic for potential employers, regardless of how good you look on paper.

It’s a common misconception that just because you’re the right woman for the job you’ll get it. To work legally in Lebanon, you need a specific visa. A work visa can require months of paperwork (during which you will not have access to your passport) and a one-year contract with your company. It can also cost your employer upwards of thousands of dollars. If there’s an equally qualified Lebanese candidate, you can bet you won’t be worth the investment.

That said, many (most) expats work here illegally. Aside from the obvious headaches – mainly, deportation if you’re caught – working without a visa can cause all kinds of stress, both mental and financial. A “friend” was once followed by General Security after questions of her work status arose. They called pretending to be the post office to get her office address (she didn’t fall for it), and they went around to her neighbors asking what time she left the house each morning. [Note to General Security: my papers are in order.]

If that’s not enough to deter you, consider that a three-month tourist visa does in fact expire after three months. That means you’ll have to leave and return to Lebanon four times per year. With the only realistic visa runs requiring airfare, it’s a time-consuming and pricey necessity, especially if you’re on a Lebanese salary. Which takes me to the issue of money. You likely won’t make a lot of it, which is probably for the best as you’ll have to keep it under your mattress – only people with residency papers can open bank accounts.

Step 2: Find a go-to coffee spot

Occasionally you’ll find a lead on sites like bayt.com and careerslb.com, but online applications rarely result in anything other than radio silence or a bounce-back message. Like most things, getting a job in Beirut will come down to who you know.

Before you even unpack your bags, email everyone you’ve ever met who might have connections in Lebanon. Ask for introductions and invite anyone who responds out for coffee. Be honest about why you’re meeting – if they help you out, you’ll eventually be able to return the favor. And not for nothing, you might get a friend out of it. I’ve been set up with some great women who are so far removed that I’m not even sure what our initial connection was in the first place.

Step 3: Be flexible

I came here looking for a job in public relations because, aside from a few random writing projects, it was all I’d ever done. I don’t speak Arabic and prospective employers kept harping on that one little detail: that I couldn’t communicate with most of the local media or clients. I’d all but given up when a friend called with news that an English-language magazine was looking for an assistant editor. It wasn’t a direction I’d considered, but I eventually got the job and with it an entirely different career path.

The moral of this story is that if living in Lebanon is your ultimate goal, be willing to take risks to make it happen. Consider opportunities you wouldn’t give a second thought to back home – you may be pleasantly surprised by what comes of it.

Step 4: Check your ego at the door

I went from managing the PR department of an international beauty company to being assistant editor of a magazine no one had ever heard of. My salary dropped by 85% and rather than demanding a non-fat latte from my intern, I was asking my boss if she wanted sugar in hers. This was not the life I’d envisioned when I moved to Beirut.

But even on an assistant’s wage, I was able to pay my rent, eat and even indulge in a nice bottle of wine every now and again. I also learned the ropes of a new industry with very little pressure – like grad school without the tuition or grades. Incidentally, I moved up quickly and am now editor-in-chief of a magazine that a few people actually read. So if you get offered a position that sounds appealing but bruises your ego, suck it up. Your pride is more resilient than you think.

If you’ve read this far and aren’t curled up in a ball sobbing, go out and get yourself a job. It may be harder than you expect, but nothing good comes without a fight and a whole lot of coffee.

Are you working legally in Beirut, or does driving past General Security make you shudder? Your comments are welcome below.

 

Images courtesy of deltalightingdesign.com, lebanesemall.com and Wikipedia

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4 thoughts on “HOW TO: WORK IN BEIRUT

  1. McKenzie! I love this post. I read your article for the Hairpin, both very insightful. I am a recent college grad (BA in management, international concentration) and travel to Lebanon often to visit family. My arabic is not so great. I can speak a bit but struggle to read and write. Have you taken any Arabic classes? if so, where? I will be in Leb this summer and would love to learn. I was looking for a summer job- but if something amazing came up, I would decide to stay in Lebanon. Advice? I would love your input!

    Xo
    Amy

  2. Hi Amy,

    Thanks for your feedback!

    I’ve taken classes at the Saifi Arabic Institute, which I would definitely recommend. Their classes cover all levels and most schedules, and are also a great way to meet people. See more here: http://www.saifiarabic.com/

    In terms of finding a job, whether temporary or permanent, my experience has always been that networking is the best way to do it. It takes time and it’s hard to do from abroad, but once you’re here it’s far more efficient than any online job search sites. Just plan to show up with an open mind and a bit of cash to tide you over until something pans out.

    I hope that’s at least a little bit helpful? Feel free to hit me with questions, if you’ve got them.

  3. Hi MacKenzie,

    This is a really interesting article! I’m thinking of moving to Beirut to learn Arabic at the Saifi Institute, and hopefully get a job related to writing/politics (I’m currently working a journalist in London). It sounds like the process of applying for a work visa is pretty stressful all round… Do you know whether international companies or charities with a base in Beirut also require you to have one?

    Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Nat,

      Any company that is concerned about employing staff legally will require you to have one (which means they must sponsor you). I would imagine most big international companies/NGOs would fall under that category, but certainly every one functions differently and there are lots of people here being paid under the table. I think you’d have to check with each organization individually.

      Sorry – I know that’s probably not the answer you were hoping for!

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