Hunting for a new job in the Middle East used to be easy for expats – if an employer was interested, they’d fly you out for an interview, then extend the offer and arrange all the paperwork. Now, the onus is on the candidate; drum up interest, get yourself to the location you want to be in and try to get a job before your 30-day tourist visa runs out.
It’s important to be prepared before you embark on a potentially expensive and disheartening journey. Here are tips from financial services professionals who succeeded in their job search and those recruiting on the ground. They’re equally as relevant for those in the region looking for a new position.
Dubai is the biggest financial centre in the region, but the DIFC is actually a tiny space compared to Wall Street, the City of London or Canary Wharf. People love to network and there are plenty of business groups where you can meet people who will open doors for you. Financial services professionals (particularly those from the West) recommend the British Business Group (BBG), American Business Council, Internations and Meetups.com. A more difficult proposition, unless you have a friend there, is to get into the Capital Club in the DIFC, which is where you’ll find some movers and shakers.
Again, in the DIFC if you’ve got an ex-colleague or friend with the right connections willing to spend a decent amount of time drinking coffee with you, it’s a great place to meet new people who could potentially provide some leads. Strangely, Café Nero – which is big outlet in Dubai’s financial centre – seems to be the place to be, according to Peter Greaves, long-time Dubai-based headhunter and managing director of IES HR Consultants. “It’s the networking centre of the Middle East – it’s centrally located between the DIFC and the Gate Village and there’s a lot of traffic and potential to bump into the right people.”
You might only be there for a matter of weeks, but recruiters will be more receptive if you can give the appearance of someone who’s in the region for the long haul. Buy a local SIM card for your phone and, if possible, use a friend’s address in the region for correspondence.
“Even when I went back to the UK I would get calls or texts and tell them I'd gone back home for a few days,” says one financial services professional who took a job in Abu Dhabi six months ago. “Recruiters and hiring managers far prefer people who are already in the region or have experience here. The main reason is because of a reasonably high 'bounce' rate as many Western expats end up not being able to cope with the hot summers or feel isolated.”
Much the chagrin of recruitment consultants locally, regional banks (which do the majority of bulk hiring) have been bolstering their in-house recruitment teams. Standard Chartered (according to our sources) is overwhelmed by speculative CVs that the recruitment team struggle to cope with. Recruiters’ value, therefore, is sorting the wheat from the chaff. However, financial services professionals we spoke to suggested there are (still) a fair share of cowboys in the region. If you’re a junior to mid-level candidate, either stick to the reputable international financial services firms in the region – Robert Walters, Robert Half, Hays, Hudson, Morgan McKinley, Hudson or Michael Page, or look for boutique operations spun out by former employees of these firms. Higher up the food chain, all the big international headhunters are present – Boyden, Heidrick & Struggles, Korn/Ferry, Sheffield Haworth as well as some boutiques with good connections.
The Middle East is the conference capital of the world – how else are they going to make full use of all those swanky hotels? Getting to know the schedule ahead of your trip and getting a place is perhaps the best way to meet people – although you’ll have to have a big budget. An alternative is to find some industry specific seminars, usually hosted by business schools and free to attend, if you want to generate some additional new contacts.
“I got my job through a friend who worked at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi who forwarded it to the head of department with a few favourable words,” says another financial services professional. “Here, it’s more about who you know than what you know.” Sounds nepotistic? Sure, but if you have anyone working in finance already who can big you up, don’t be afraid to exploit it.
You might be a big shot in the UK, but is there a place for you in the Middle East financial services industry? Sitting down with a headhunter is the best way of getting a barometer of your skill-set, says Magdy El Zein, managing director of headhunters Boyden Middle East: “Get an overview of the market and whether your skill-set is appropriate. Any reputable headhunter will sit down with candidates, even if it means giving them information they don’t want to hear.”
And, of course, you can get a feel for the market by using specialist jobs boards (like eFC…)
Don’t just turn up at the offices of a bank and demand to speak to the right people at reception. Do, however, find out who the right people are and either find out their email to send out a speculative application or call them up and pitch yourself. “It takes guts and persistence, but it shows confidence and ambition,” says one financial services professional who succeeded through this approach.
Turn up during Ramadan (usually July or August) or over the Christmas period, then you’re liable to find everyone you want to speak to out of the office. While Ramadan can be a good networking opportunity, you’re more likely to find success in the first half of the year, when most new hires are completed, or after September when firms scramble to fill their allocated headcount allowance before the end of the year.
You have a few weeks to get the ball rolling, but how long should you give it before you expect to actually start the new job? Between four to six months, according to the financial services professionals we spoke to. Even assuming you get a job offer during you time on the ground, the clearance process takes months, particularly as the focus on hiring locals means the visa approval process is drawn out. “Lots of people come here for a few weeks or even a month hoping to land a job and the vast majority will only start to get offers a few weeks after they return home,” says one financial services employee in Dubai. “Everything just takes longer here.”