In 2016, investment in financial technology across the Middle East totalled just US$19m. One year later, it was $50m. That’s just one example of the way that this region has been experiencing an economic boom centred on the finance industry. What it can’t do is skill up local workers fast enough to compete, which is why there are great opportunities available for foreign workers. There are also lots of opportunities for Western investors to get involved with businesses that have strong prospects in market niches primed for exploitation but can’t find the funding locally. If you have a background in investment and you’re looking to make serious money, then this is the place to be.
Some people make the mistake of travelling all the way out to the Middle East only to find that there’s a lot of competition for jobs requiring their particular skill sets. Although the finance area is strong as a whole, opportunities are unevenly distributed across the sector, which means that some people may be better off broadening their skill sets at home before they set off. The areas where demand is really strong are based around corporate banking, personal banking and direct investment, with private equity origination and sales the most lucrative areas of all. Incentives packages are not as generous as they once were, but it’s still fairly common for employers to cover relocation expenses, health insurance, and schooling for your children if you’re working in one of these areas – on top of an attractive salary.
Perceptions of Westerners
One big factor that Western finance professionals have in their favour is that they tend to be perceived – right across the Middle East – as sophisticated, good with technology, and capable of adapting quickly to change. The combination of this belief and the assumption that Westerners can earn higher salaries at home than people from other parts of the world has resulted in Westerners working in the Middle East receiving, on average, 6% more pay than Arabs for equivalent work. Although there is to date no data to establish whether or not it impacts recruitment, some Western expats in the region believe that they have an advantage there too.
The best cities for Westerners
Traditionally, the centres of Western activity in the Middle East have been the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but there are lots of other places with interesting things going on. Kuwait City, home of banking magnate Fahad Al Rajaan, has seen its finance sector enjoy a major growth spurt in the past year thanks to increased political stability and capital market reform. Joining the FTSE Index has increased its international trade, and the relaxation of regulations on foreign investors has made it a great place for people looking for investment opportunities as well as a good choice for those seeking employment in the city.
As Egypt has come to enjoy greater stability in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Cairo has resumed its historic position as one of the most important trading centres in the region, being the bridge between Africa and the Middle East. A Qualifying Industrial Zone within it now allows tax-free access to US markets for all businesses with a modicum of Israeli investment, and this has created ample opportunities for European finance professionals who speak good English. Despite a quota system restricting the number of foreigners in upper-management roles, the city is a good place to look for employment in the sector, wages are high, and it’s ripe for investment.
Beirut is a small city compared to these giants, but it has always been cosmopolitan and it’s one of the most welcoming places for Westerners in the whole region. Always adaptable, it has thrived in the modern era, and it operates a free banking zone, which means that currencies can be exchanged at no cost – a real boon for investors. It has some great trade agreements with other Middle Eastern nations and makes an excellent base of operations – the only drawback being that rents are commensurate with this. For skilled finance professionals commanding high salaries, however, that’s not a big problem, and when you feel the need to get away from the hectic pace of it all, the Mediterranean is right there.
With these great cities and other locations full of opportunity to be found throughout the region, the Middle East has never been a more tempting place to base a financial career. Why not visit to find out more about what it could offer to you?