View from Dubai: More Hong Kong than Riyadh

eFC logo

Our (anonymous) woman in Dubai offers her take on the desert kingdom's transformation into a financial services hub.

In the Starbucks-type cafés in Dubai's financial district a new breed of invader has arrived. He wields a Blackberry, not an M-16. Unlike those other troops several hundred miles away in Iraq, he - or she - is an investment banker, not a soldier. He busts through passport control with a visa rather than a tank and he is popular with the locals. The city's main highway has many hazards, but remote-controlled bombs are not among them.

Westerners welcome

Many of the new colonialists are Westerners of Middle East descent. Anyone with international private equity or fund management skills who speaks Arabic and knows this region can increasingly cherry pick their job - and, as the market heats up, their salary and bonus too.

But the Gulf states are booming so fast that there are also plenty of openings here even if you don't know the difference between Sheikh Mohammed and Shakin' Stevens, or think Doha is an expression from The Simpsons. Have M&A or private banking skills? There's a job for you in Dubai.

Your last assignment could have been in New York, London, Frankfurt or Hong Kong. You might work for Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered, Man Investments, or for one of the rapidly growing regional investment banks such as EFG-Hermes or SHUAA Capital.

All these, plus many others, have set up offices inside Dubai's swanky financial centre since it opened just over two years ago. People used to sneer at the centre's grandiose pretensions. But like most things in Dubai, it's starting to live up to the hype.

Dubai is a popular posting. The skyline is Manhattan and the ethos is work hard, play hard - like Hong Kong. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs are packed. Residents fall about laughing when ill-informed friends back home ask if they can get a drink, if women can drive and if they have to live in a guarded compound.

Separate lives

It's sometimes possible to forget you're in the Moslem world. Never wise, though. Most local people remain conservative and some are resentful that their beaches have been hijacked by bikini-wearing foreigners. Local girls wear black abayas, albeit imaginatively decorated (and sometimes tantalizingly transparent). Adultery and homosexuality can lead to jail terms under laws that are haphazardly enforced.

Foreigners can spend years here without getting to know any locals, or emirati as they are called. UAE nationals form less than 20% of the population, which must be the lowest ratio of any country in the world.

No-one quite knows why Dubai works. A feasibility study would conclude it should collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.

But work it does, and magnificently. It has the world's richest horse race, the world's first seven-star hotel, it's throwing up the world's tallest building at the rate of three floors a week... Dubai is the world record holder for world records.

So foreigners flock here in growing numbers. Most are Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who do the work that keeps the city going and live scarcely better than they could back home.

And then there are those investment banks, plus all the usual hangers-on - law firms (Clifford Chance, Ashursts), headhunters (Korn Ferry, Odgers), and PR firms (Financial Dynamics, Buchanan).

Their staff may be magnificently unaware of the culture of the region, its history and its politics. But they are having one hell of a good time.

And they are making serious money.