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Zombie bankers in Dubai reluctantly eye a voyage home

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Senior expat bankers in the Middle East, ousted by a combination of cost-cutting and localisation programmes, are facing the prospect of long-term unemployment followed by a reluctant trip back to the UK, Europe or the U.S.

It wasn’t too long ago that regional banks in the Middle East were clamouring to persuade grey-haired bankers to move into senior roles in the region to wind down their career. Similarly, international firms were keen to ship seasoned investment bankers to Dubai to carve out business in a frontier market.

That ship, however, has now sailed. “We’re encountering CEOs, CIOs and managing directors who lost their jobs at the end of 2012 and are facing six months of being unemployed,” said Barbara van Meir, managing director of Dubai-based executive search firm Vogel & Noor. “Most are waiting until Ramadan and, if nothing comes up, they’ll look for opportunities back home.”

Success planning, namely training local candidates to take senior roles over from expats, has always been on the agenda, but foreign bankers within the C-suite and heads of functions are now finding their services surplus to requirements as Emiratisation programmes step up a notch.

“It’s rough out there,” said one ex-chief investment officer of a region fund manager who lost his job in December. “Firms are making it clear that local candidates are their preference and extending the recruitment process in order to find the right person.”

There are still some opportunities for the right people. Simon Penney, who resigned as Middle East and Africa CEO at Royal Bank of Scotland in March has taken the role as head of wholesale banking at First Gulf Bank in Abu Dhabi. Alex Thursby moved from ANZ to take the role as CEO of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi last month and, more controversially, Ian Larkin moved from Lloyds Banking Group to RAK Bank only to resign less than six weeks after taking the role.

Residency visas in Dubai are dependent on employer sponsorship, so once you lose your job the clock starts ticking until you have to leave. However, most companies give their staff a reasonable amount of time to find a new job – three months typically, but this is extended to six months for executive roles.

Nonetheless, an increasing number of bankers in managing director or executive roles are having to be innovative to stay in the region.

“Increasingly, senior bankers are starting their own consultancy businesses, a boutique operation or taking on non-executive director roles where their expertise is required to advise local executives,” said Peter Greaves, managing director of IES HR Consultants in Dubai.

It’s also becoming more a competitive job market thanks to decidedly more onerous localisation initiatives in Saudi Arabia. Nitaqat aims to bolster the number of locals in the banking sector by 95%. Some expat bankers are already leaving the kingdom.

“We’re seeing more expat bankers, anticipating losing their jobs over the next 18 months in Saudi, making a pre-emptive move the UAE,” said Jason Grundy, head of Middle East at Robert Walters.

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