More expat bankers are moving back to Dubai and it’s not just for the job opportunities. Junior to mid-level bankers are attracted by the promise of a glitzier, more luxurious lifestyle.
Employment in Dubai is growing, despite some international players cutting back. In the DIFC, the major financial centre in the Middle East, numbers employed rose by 2,000 in 2012, which is a stark contrast to London and New York where the axe has been liberally swung.
It’s also cheaper to live in the region. Dubai has a reputation for being pricey, but the latest Mercer Cost of Living survey ranked it at 94th, with tumbling residential rents driving down living expenses. London ranked 25th in Mercer’s survey, while New York was 32nd.
Those lower costs coupled with relatively better job opportunities has made Dubai more popular with junior to mid-ranking bankers in the last 12 months as well as with those in back or middle office roles seeking new, and more secure, job opportunities.
“I was living in a two-bedroom council flat in Clapham, where someone tried to sell me pot on the doorstep, and moved to a plush penthouse apartment in Dubai with a pool for the same price,” says one human resources manager working in an international bank in Dubai. “I went from a commute on a crowded tube, to driving to work in my own car and from boozy after-work drinks in cramped City pubs to extravagant night clubs.”
“Dubai is an easy sell to expat bankers currently, particularly juniors or those in the back office who are losing out on bonuses this year,” says James Collin, senior consultant at Morgan McKinley in Dubai. “Tax-free salaries go further, the lifestyle is great and all the property is new and high-spec.”
Dubai may be lacking in culture with the museums and theatre shows common in London and New York nowhere to be seen, but it does have bling. The Armani Privé nightclub is popular with bankers, say those we spoke to, as is Mahiki in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Zuma in the Dubai International Financial Centre.
Weekends in Dubai fall on a Friday and Saturday and the first day is invariably spent at one of the emirate’s iconic brunches. These are not brunches in the US-sense – customers pay anything from AED140-400 ($38-$110) to consume vast amounts of food, and more importantly booze, between 1-5pm at the weekend, before stumbling back out on to the streets of Dubai for the Friday night party.
“Brunches are popular, but they can get quite messy,” says one fixed income trader we spoke to. “If ever you see reports of a drunken expat getting in trouble with the local police, it’s usually after a brunch.”
There are, of course, more wholesome activities in Dubai. For the more well-heeled bankers, there’s also a selection of championship standard golf courses, like the Jumeirah Golf Estates, the Emirates Golf Club and The Montgomerie, where green fees range from $160-270. A lot of expat bankers also join football, cricket and rugby clubs, says the fixed income trader.
However, moving to Dubai is not without its issues for newbie expats, who often unintentionally flout the cultural norms.
One private equity manager who has lived in Dubai for the past ten years says Western expats have to learn to be more tolerant of other cultures. “Newly-arrived Westerners tend to be pushy and demanding, but you learn quickly that this will get you nowhere - and sometimes creates problems with the locals.”
Public displays of affection are frowned upon in Dubai, which can create problems for singletons on the make. “If a bouncer sees you kissing in a club, they will break it up and give you a warning, and then throw you out if it carries on,” says the human resources manager.
In 2011, HSBC analyst Toby Carroll was arrested for sex outside of marriage, which is illegal in Dubai, after police were called to in settle a love-triangle bust up. Rebecca Blake, a British woman working as a recruitment consultant in the emirate, was sentenced to three-months in prison for allegedly having sex in the back of a taxi after a boozy brunch – something she has denied.
Magdy El Zein, managing director of headhunters Boyden Middle East, says that despite the lifestyle, there remains a misconception among expat bankers that Dubai is a cushy option. “The workload is heavy for bankers and the stress levels can be high. Just because you can afford a nice apartment, drive a dune buggy at the weekend and choose from a selection of top golf courses, doesn’t mean it’s any easier on your career.”
Similarly, Mary Sheedy, director of relocation firm My Move Dubai, says that although bankers have “greater spending power” one of the key concerns of expat finance professionals is career progression opportunities. “The stability of the job market, career progression and getting back into their role at the end of their fixed term contract is a concern for many.”