An out of the blue phone call has a local family packing their bags and jumping two continents to begin a new life in the Middle East.
When Christine Kowal picked up the receiver last fall, she never expected a job recruiter from Saudi Arabia would be on the other end of the line offering the job opportunity of a lifetime.
It turns out that a Dubai agency happened to pull up a resume Kowal posted on a job board a few years ago, and was following up with an offer.
“He said, ‘I see you have an old resume,’ and asked if I was still interested in an international experience,” she said. “I said absolutely, throw my hat in the ring.”
Within weeks, Kowal was flown to Bahrain for a face-to-face interview in November, with BNP Parabis, a French bank with its corporate investment arm based in the Middle Eastern island country.
With five years managing training and development at the Trail branch of Kootenay Savings Credit Union, the B.C. native seized her chance to try something new, and accepted the permanent position as vice president of learning and development at the international bank.
After she completes an orientation in Paris next month, Kowak, who has a bachelor of commerce, specializing in human resources and an MBA from Royal Roads University in Victoria, will assume responsibility for the ongoing education of 700 employees working in BNP branches in the Middle East, Morocco, and Africa.
“I first dipped my feet into this world as a training specialist in northern health,” she explained. “That’s where Kootenay Savings found me and how I went down this road,” Kowal said. “The fact that a small town girl from the Kootenays can be set up for an opportunity like this is just amazing.”
Since accepting the job, which is more than 7,000 miles from her Castlegar home, Kowal has been inundated with questions about her decision to relocate to the Muslim country.
A common question she faces is, ‘What are you thinking?’, because the move includes selling the family house; streamlining possessions to ship to Bahrain; her husband’s cessation of work as a paralegal in Nelson; and packing for a nine-year-old son and toddler daughter.
“It’s been funny since receiving this offer,” said Kowal. “Some people have asked if I am insane bringing my family over to a place like that,” she explained.”And others wish they could come in my suitcase.”
When she travelled to the country last year, Kowal expected to be treated with respect in the work place, noting that English is the first language in the Middle East business world.
However, she wasn’t certain what to expect or how she would feel, as a western woman, walking down the street alone.
“Bahrain is a forward thinking and modern country,” said Kowal. “The county is as tolerant as it gets in the Middle East and I am not expected to cover myself. I never felt unsafe and the Arab men were welcoming and friendly, and not any of the stereotypes people think about the Middle East.”
Kowal and her family will live in Manama, a city described as an economy-based centre in the Persian Gulf, and the capital and largest city in the 33-island archipelago.
“Another question I have been getting a lot of is, ‘Why am I going there for banking?’” she said.
In 1932, Bahrain was the first country to discover oil on the Arabian side of the Gulf.
Since that time, under the rule of the royal Al Khalifa monarchy, the Kingdom of Bahrain has shifted its focus from refineries, to diversifying the economy, and offers a tax-free haven in a large financial services base.
“They realized the oil reserves wouldn’t last forever,” said Kowal. “By planning ahead there are 320 financial institutions on this little island of Bahrain and it has become the financial services capital in the Middle East.”
Kowal’s last day at the Trail bank is Friday, and Saturday she and her family will hop on a plane in Spokane and fly to Denver before crossing the pond to England, and landing in Bahrain Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.
Her first work day begins Sunday (Feb. 1) and although the hours are slightly longer than the usual nine-to-five in North America, the banks are closed Friday and Saturday to allow for religious observance of the primarily Shia Islam population.
“I am really interested to learn how I will have to shift my way of teaching to accommodate for the cultural differences,” said Kowal. “But my position at Kootenay Savings gave me the experience I need and is aligned with what they are looking for in the Middle East. That is really what has set me up for success.”