How important to you is the prestige associated with the job? If the money was good and the work interesting enough, would you consider accepting a role without the job title to match? This is exactly what a select band of financial professionals do in the Middle East, but the question is why?
Beneath the executive suite comprising predominantly local nationalities in most regional banks lies a team of expats completing much of the hard work without the credit – known as shadow bankers. Instead of job titles like chief financial officer, chief operating officer, or (in some cases), deputy chief executive, you’ll find – like an over-worked civil servant – expats being branded ‘head of strategy’, ‘executive consultant’, or ‘adviser to the executive office’, so that local candidates can still occupy the formal jobs in the C-suite.
This is not restricted to finance, with most senior positions across the public and private sector in places like Qatar and the United Arab Emirate (UAE) occupied by nationals, but it’s questionable why bankers with significant experience in bulge bracket brands in Western markets would choose to move to the Middle East for a role without the associated prestige of an executive position.
“Money is, sadly, a big motivating factor for me,” one wealth management executive in Dubai who occupies a senior role without the title, tells us. “They’re still paying our Emirati colleagues more than us, but you’re talking a 25% mark up from what I could earn in an equivalent role in the UK, and it’s tax free.”
A hefty salary may be a good thing in the short-term, but what happens when you decide to move on and a new employer doesn’t understand the special relationship you had with your previous firm?
“I have to admit that I’ve given up the prospect of being a senior executive back home,” said one U.S. executive working for a sovereign entity in Abu Dhabi. “I’ve made good connections here, which will enable me to move on to another role in the region and then afterwards I’m considering moving on to a role doing something more worthy – either working for a charity or more ethically focused finance. Either that or I’ll move to Singapore.”
Succession planning, or ensuring that expat expertise can train local candidates to take over their roles, has been in the pipeline for some time, which means these career choices have never been a long-term option. However, many firms are giving the impression that skilled locals are making it to the top on merit, while those with expertise gained elsewhere do the real work.
“A lot of people who take these positions are approaching the end of their careers, and are looking to apply their skills in a productive way without all the stress that comes with executive duties,” said Magdy El Zein, managing director of headhunters Boyden Middle East.”It’s a win-win situation.”
Despite this, the role of the shadow banker remains a secret, with those we spoke to keen to hide their identity in order to avoid any repercussions from their current employer. “There’s an unwritten rule that no one talks about it,” said the wealth manager. “I guess that helps the practice continue under the radar.”