Saudi Arabia has long been viewed as a hardship posting for expat financial services professionals, but as opportunities shrink in other Middle East locations the kingdom has continued to offer jobs. However, a new push to recruit local candidates has meant it’s become an uphill struggle for foreigners to move in, but expat expertise is still required in some sectors.
Until recently, the banking sector wasn’t a big target for Saudi Arabia’s Nitaqat localisation system, aimed at bringing more Saudis into the workforce. However, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority has given banks three months to outline the jobs that could be reserved exclusively for locals and aims to increase the number of Saudis in the banking sector by 95%.
Understandably, expats working in the kingdom have reason to worry. “At the senior end succession planning within the large local banks has been going on for years, but there’s still a relative shortage and banks need to pay very well to attract and retain local executives,” said Magdy El Zein, managing director of headhunters Boyden Middle East.
International firms like J.P. Morgan have been building in Saudi, while Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse have been shifting equities bankers from Dubai to the kingdom in order to capitalise on growing trading volumes. Russian bank VTB Capital is also considering launching a Saudi operation.
However, outside of the multinationals most expats are only being drafted in for their specialist expertise, argues Peter Greaves, managing director of IES HR Consultants in Dubai.
“Outside of investment banking, there’s a real push for risk and compliance staff from the UK, US and Australia,” he said. “In particular, anti-money laundering expertise is growing in demand and those with experience in sophisticated Western markets are being snapped up.”
Manuel D. Ron, global head of co-development and investment banking at Integration Capital & Trade (ICT), an international firm that focuses on Saudi Arabia, believes that the localisation push will hit expats from South Asia, Northern Africa and the Levant, who are working in junior and mid-level roles that could easily be filled with local candidates.
“Expats with venture capital, private equity, asset allocation and international understanding and reach will bring the type of value needed in Saudi,” he said.
Making it in Saudi is about more than simply possessing a niche skill-set. Expats are encased within the Saudi compounds that can often mean bankers are cut off from local life. Getting the buy in of your family is integral, said Greaves.
“The entire social life within the compounds revolves around mixing with other married expats, usually with young children,” he said. “It can be difficult for single expat bankers to make it, not necessarily professionally, but because they feel cut off socially.”
There’s also the fact that most people assume that the same tactics that succeeded in their professional life in London or the US will work in the Saudi market. Often, investment bankers are recruited for their technical expertise, but it’s their personality that lets them down, said Ron.
“Personality traits which are rewarded in New York, for example, will cause significant problems for everyone in Saudi, he said. “What works in New York, whether technical elegance or a pushy, impatient characteristically New York attitude will not work in Saudi. I think the Brits have an easier time in Saudi due to a more controlled approach, followed by the Australians.”
In any case, there are reasons to believe that Saudi will soon make efforts to attract more expats. It's new King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh is aimed at making a challenge for Dubai's regional dominance, but for now it remains largely empty.