The emerging market still busting to hire Americans and Europeans

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The world is no longer the oyster of expat financial services professionals. Localisation initiatives in places like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar mean that these markets are increasingly closed to foreigners as firms look to give favourable treatment to national candidates.

And yet, in the UAE – where visas are harder to come by and expats are being forced out of their positions by locals – there’s an underlying demand for foreign financial talent that refuses to go away. Recent research by recruiters Robert Half suggests that most firms in the country still want to hire expats – those from the U.S are most desirable, with 32% of HR professionals and CFOs surveyed cited saying they wanted to hire people from this country, followed by the UK (27%), Continental Europe (15%) and Australasia (13%).

“The reality is that the Emirati talent available is quite limited, and while many are given big positions after a few years’ experience, the fact remains that expats are still required for the vast majority of roles,” said Magdy El Zein, managing director of headhunters Boyden Middle East.

While financial institutions wax lyrical about Emiratisation quotas, rotational training programmes to create the local leaders of the future, and succession planning, the uncomfortable truth is that the UAE is still incredibly reliant on expats for the majority of roles in financial services.

“When we’re given a mandate, the preference is for a UAE national, followed by a GCC national and then a Western expat,” said James Collin, senior consultant for banking at Morgan McKinley. “Generally, though, expats are hired for private banking, corporate banking, investment banking and other front-office roles, as well as specialist positions like risk and compliance.”

The preference is for local candidates, but the shortage of available people means that firms are usually prepared to pay nationals 25-30% more than expats for an equivalent role, said Collin. However, because local bankers are hard to source, there’s a “war for talent” for international candidates in the region, according to Robert Half.

It’s not just for revenue-generating roles where expats are currently being courted, however. As regional banks are investing more in their technology infrastructure, they’re looking to Asia and Europe to staff them up.

“My entire team is made up of expats,” said one project manager who has just taken a role at a large bank in Abu Dhabi. “There are Western people here, but a lot of the more technical guys have come from India or Singapore.”

So far this year, headcount in the Dubai International Financial Centre has increased by 7%, or around 1,000 people. However, more opportunities exist in the local firms, which have the majority of their operations in the region, rather than the representative offices of the international players. The National Bank of Abu Dhabi and First Gulf Bank are among the banks building their wholesale divisions currently.