Aside from the brief ‘gold rush’ in 2008, as investment bankers flocked to Dubai to escape the financial crisis sweeping London and New York, the Middle East has struggled to maintain its allure to financial professionals. A tiny investment banking fee pool, small teams decimated by cuts and a preference for local candidates has ensured that the investment banking community in the Middle East has remained relatively insular. Could it be, though, that the Gulf has become ‘sexy’ to internationally mobile financial services professionals again?
While the job market has been bereft of opportunities for some time, there are crumbs of optimism emerging. International banks are hiring again. JPMorgan has just unveiled two senior coverage bankers for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Natixis is bolstering headcount by 50% in the region, while Renaissance Capital and Goldman Sachs have also been recruiting.
Then there’s private equity, with headhunters suggesting that firms who previously retreated from direct investments are hiring again at the senior level. One recent example is Arqaam Capital, which just hired Anis Bibi, the former head of private equity at Shuaa Capital, to lead its principal finance business.
“In the sovereign wealth funds and private equity firms, there’s a domino effect – they hire a few people from Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan and this makes working in Qatar or Abu Dhabi a more appealing option to others in New York or London,” says Ziad Awad, a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch MD who now runs boutique Awad Advisory in Dubai. “These firms want the technical skills gained in international markets, but investment banks are still focusing on local relationships and Arabic language skills for the senior coverage roles."
One reason for the increase in demand is the positive deal environment. Investment banking fees in the Middle East have shot up this year to $237.9m in the first half - a 72% increase on 2013. Meanwhile, the activity of Gulf sovereign wealth funds has also picked up, which is helping push up demand for private equity professionals. In 2014, $20.2bn worth of direct investments have been implemented by sovereign wealth funds in the GCC, according to figures from the SWF Institute.
It’s not as though M&A and equity capital markets bankers are bereft of opportunities in places like London or New York, though. A surge in activity throughout 2014 global investment banking fees are at a seven-year high of $57.4bn – has ensured that investment banks are recruiting for their advisory functions. In fact, investment bankers in the Gulf are being tempted back to London for these jobs.
The result is that a talent pool on the ground in the Gulf that was already thin thanks to ongoing cuts over the past three years is being eroded further. “The region is growing so there is a need to import bankers from abroad,” says Omar Taha, CEO of UAE-based financial services search for The S&T Group. “However, companies have voiced a strong interest to have bankers that are locally sourced. For example, I recently had a search for an international bank. They had a preference for an investment banker from NY or London. When I suggested a local candidate from a competitor, they hired her because she could have started sooner.”
While the London market is still relatively buoyant, there’s an increasing interest in the Middle East from candidates in other parts of the world, says Barbara van Meir, senior principal consultant at Boyden Middle East.
“We’re seeing more interest from candidates currently based in Singapore and Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, in New York where the job market isn’t nearly as buoyant as London,” she says. “At the senior end, regional experience is imperative. It’s not just about technical skills or relationships – clients want to work with bankers who have seen the good, the bad and the ugly over the past ten years in the region. These people are highly valuable.”
And while the preference for senior-ranking bankers is for those with years of regional experience under their belt, at a junior level, where relationships are less important, they’re decidedly more flexible, says Awad.
"It is placing pressure on the talent pool and raising the salaries for candidates throughout the region," adds Taha. “With that said, the regional talent pool is still a bit weak and the new imported candidates tend to be much stronger than they were, say pre-2008.”
The problem that investment banks in the Middle East face is that junior investment bankers from analyst to associate level are the hottest commodities in every market, so persuading them that the Gulf is the best place to base themselves remains a hard sell. For the time being, then, banks seem destined to fish from the same small pool.