The Middle East has long had a reputation for being one of the world's perennial trouble spots. But for expatriates, the tiny Persian Gulf country Bahrain ranks as one of the most welcoming places to work.
That's the surprising result of a new survey of 3,100 expatriates conducted by HSBC Bank. Bahrain ranked first in one key measure of how easy it is for expatriates to set up a new life for their families. It received high marks from expats who like the country's easy access to modern health care, decent and affordable housing, and network of social groups that expatriates can join.
Canada, which ranked first in a similar survey last year, fell to second place on HSBC's integration score, which measures how easily foreigners and their families can settle into a new country. Australia, Thailand and Malaysia rounded out the top five. Foreign workers in these countries found it easy to make local friends and said they enjoyed a higher quality of life than in their native countries.
Behind the numbers
HSBC's Expat Explorer survey was conducted between February and April 2009. Survey respondents were from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere and lived in more than two dozen countries and on four continents. They ranked their new homes based on 23 factors, including food, entertainment, health care, commute and education. Of those measures, HSBC selected eight to create its so-called "integration score," a snapshot of which countries are most welcoming to expats.
It is possible that Bahrain's first-place finish is a fluke. Only 31 expats working in Bahrain participated in the survey, vs. more than 450 respondents from the United Kingdom. Bahrain ranked as the best country to join local community groups and coordinate health care.
Respondents found it less easy to make local friends and learn the languages (Arabic, Farsi and Urdu), but the country ranked in the top five when it came to finding a home, setting up finances, and finding good schools.
The United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom received some of the poorest scores on the integration scale. Expats in the Emirates reported finding it difficult to join local community groups; only 39 percent of respondents made local friends compared to 76 percent of respondents living in other countries. Foreign workers in England complained about the challenges of finding affordable housing.
Suzanne Garber, COO of the Americas Region for International SOS, a firm that provides medical and logistical assistance to overseas employees, says surveys like these give potential expats an overarching view of living in various countries.
But she says that family life is the leading indicator of whether or not an expat assignment will be successful. Many overseas stints end prematurely because an employee's family feels disconnected from the new country and has trouble handling basic tasks like refilling prescriptions, driving around town or dealing with the local police.
"The concerns are pretty much the same no matter where you are," says Garber. "You have to make sure the family's life is stable and secure."