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Eight skills that will get you hired in the Middle East financial sector today

A strange thing is happening to financial services headhunters and recruiters in the Middle East; for the first time in five years, clients are actively inviting them into meetings and asking them to work on significant mandates.

“It makes a change from us calling clients and inviting them for a coffee to pitch for business,” says Barbara van Meir, managing director of Dubai-based headunters Vogel & Noor. “There’s a decidedly positive feel about 2014.”

Some of this is down to the fact that Dubai won the Expo 2020 and is set to make both big investments in infrastructure and attracting more residents – and therefore banking customers – to the region. But there’s also a sense that the financial sector has turned a corner in the Gulf.

From an employment point of view, however, it’s not the ‘glamour’ roles of in investment banking and trading that are receiving a boost. Instead, it’s the nuts and bolts of banking, and the skills that have traditionally been in demand in the region that recruiters are looking to hire for. Here are eight of the most in demand skills currently.

1. Project finance

It was a good year for project finance in the Middle East in 2013 – deal volumes increased to $18.3bn, according to figures from Thomson Reuters, a 158% increase on 2012 and the biggest rise of any region globally during the period.

Some banks, notably the large French institutions like BNP Paribas and SocGen, are talking up project finance as an area of expansion for 2014. However, recruitment is largely outside of the banking sector, believes James Wakefield, director of headhunters Cobalt Abu Dhabi.

“Most banks have their originators out here and then structure the deals in Europe, so there’s not a huge appetite to hire,” he says. “However, where we are seeing an increase in demand for project finance execution specialists is within the region’s principals looking to strengthen their increasingly busy in-house teams. These organisations are also adding to their origination and investment teams on the equity side.”

2. Transaction services

If you get to the top of the tree within transaction banking in the Middle East, it can be incredibly lucrative – these roles pay up to $470k, according to recruiters Robert Half, which is more than a managing director in investment banking receives in the region. It’s the one area where international banks like Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank and Citi have continued to hire, while also competing against regional players.

“Banks are going back to basics in the region, and this has created a sustained demand for transaction services professionals, particularly in cash management,” says van Meir.

3. Syndicated loans

Loans are cheaper than tapping the debt capital markets for companies and they are also a method by which firms have preferred to raise funds. In 2013, syndicated loans in the Middle East and Africa reached $47.6bn. It’s an area where (again) SocGen is talking up expansion, but so are the likes of Barclays and HSBC, according to recruiters.

4. Asset management

There are tentative signs that asset managers in the Middle East are beginning to expand on the back of a surge in market value in the region in recent months. Shuaa Capital has shaken up its senior management and added Amer Khan to lead its asset management division, while Alpen Capital, the investment bank, has just launched a new asset management division. This is indicative of a desire to move away from a pure distribution office in the region, to actual expansion, believe Omar Taha, a former investment banker and managing director of executive search firm The S&T Group in Dubai.

“Markets are up big time this year and a lot of firms are looking for people with solid track records managing money,” he says. “Asset management professional jobs require a mix of accounting, management, and managerial skills to be able to fulfill the role. Professionals having the same mix of qualifications are highly in-demand in the UAE.”

5. Treasury sales

In another bid to generate revenues from simple, more traditional avenues, the market for treasury sales professionals in the Gulf is heating up, believes James Maidlow, manager of Robert Half Financial Services in the UAE. Dubai Islamic Bank is one firm that’s actively hiring in this area.

“All banks are active in this area, so war for talent is rife,” he says.

6. Internal audit

Another job that doesn’t exactly scream excitement, but internal audit has become more in demand globally and the Middle East is no exception. “Internal audit managers are in-demand in the UAE with the scarcity of qualified applicants, in the midst of the constant need for the same. In the prevalence of start-ups and new capital ventures in Dubai; these companies require the services of assurance and consulting professionals,” says Taha.

7. Technologists with e-Commerce and legacy platform experience

One area within banking where expat expertise is firmly in demand is technology. Most banks are looking to replace their clunking legacy platforms (as most banks across the world are) and are drafting in experienced technologists to help them do so. At the same time, they’re also investing in more innovative platforms.

One project manager currently working for a large regional bank in Abu Dhabi tells us: “Technology in local banks here is a decade or so behind and given the new wave of senior Western expats taking over management positions a lot of change is going on. E-commerce and e-trading is also gaining more significance in capital markets in particular, FX is in strong demand and diversifying into other asset classes over time.”

8. Relationship managers

It’s difficult to think of a role that has been more in demand in the Middle East over the past five years than relationship managers in private banks. However, as some global players have shut up shop or retrenched their Middle East services back to offshore destinations, the market has cooled. More recently, though, it’s picked up again, says Taha.

“Those who have experience supervising and managing financial teams are in demand in the UAE financial services sector as of the moment,” he adds.

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