Working in the Gulf
From expat paradise to state of caution: Dubai looks and feels a whole lot different, says Calum Robson
The last twelve months have seen unprecedented turmoil sweep through the economy of Dubai. Without the oil and gas resources of its neighbours to provide shelter from the storm of global recession, Dubai’s heavy reliance on financial services, construction, real estate and tourism spelled gloomy news for its expatriate professional community, many of whom had come to accept exuberant prosperity and a lavish lifestyle as the norm. Where skill shortages and high salaries once meant good times for talented finance professionals, prudence and caution now prevail.
Concerns for job security
‘The recession has reduced the demand for finance professionals,’ says Charlotte Abbott, director of Hays Accountancy & Finance in the emirate. ‘Most sectors have been affected to some degree, although some stabilisation is taking place. But because job security is a far greater concern, many candidates now prefer to consider large companies or the multinationals over start-ups.’
And working life has changed for many expatriate accountants in Dubai. ‘The mood amongst people here isn’t good,’ says CIMA member Anup Nair. ‘There’s talk of small and medium-sized companies closing down, unemployment is rising and many employees face salary cuts.
‘People are finding it tough going – and with revenues and margins falling, management teams are keeping a sharp eye on cost reductions. However, even so, there are still good opportunities for management accountants.’
In fact, though, it’s not all doom and gloom, despite the high profile given in the financial press to Dubai’s fall-out from the global recession.
Honing finance skills
Many will have read the reports of thousands of Brits and Americans abandoning their SUVs in the airport car park, keys in the ignition and apologetic notes to creditors pinned under the windscreen wipers. But the spectacular fall from grace portrayed in the media doesn’t paint the full picture.
Ganesh Prabhu, who works for law firm Herbert Smith, says, ‘Life continues to be attractive here, especially as the cost of living has gone down significantly, thanks to falling rents. And although the job market has tightened, there’s still scope for well-trained, experienced people.’
In fact, the economic turmoil may even have honed the skills of some Dubai-based finance professionals: ‘People used to be concerned primarily about how to get high returns and deal with surplus funds,’ says Prabhu. ‘Cash was taken for granted. But with the onset of the financial crisis, everyone was forced to start learning basic business principles once again; namely, that cash is king. With investors withholding funds and customers delaying payments – or even going out of business – many finance managers in companies here have been forced to shift their focus to cash generation, for instance, by negotiating credit facilities with banks.’
The majority of accountants who have been made redundant but have chosen to stay in the Gulf haven’t sought to change career paths; instead, many will consider a broader range of locations outside Dubai: ‘More vacancies are becoming available in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, whose economies have proved more robust at withstanding the global recession,’ says Abbott. ‘Even the construction and property sector is recovering there, due to government investment in infrastructure. And Doha’s continued development as a regional centre of excellence for science and technology mean opportunities are being created in Qatar too.’
Although some accountants in more adversely affected world economic centres have regarded the Middle East as a market for their talents, candidates already based there are generally favoured: ‘Employers prefer to hire people with local knowledge, unless there’s a specific technical skill that can’t be sourced locally,’ says Abbott. ‘Longer-term Middle East experience and the ability to speak Arabic are definitely assets.’
‘Working in Dubai gives people the Middle East experience that many employers in the Gulf want,’ says Prabhu. ‘I know of a number of accountants who live in Dubai but now commute 90 minutes each way to Abu Dhabi.’
Hays anticipates hiring activity to increase : ‘A number of organisations have more positive expectations for an improved business environment for the final quarter of the year,’ says Abbott.
And looking further ahead, she sees reason to be guardedly cheerful: ‘Employers have a much more positive outlook – but with a healthy dose of realism; nobody in the UAE expects a return to the excessive levels of recruitment previously seen. There’s a far greater emphasis on only hiring into business-critical roles – anything deemed to be a luxury or just a nice-to-have is unlikely to be given the green light.’