by Calum Robson
09 Apr 2009
In recent years, the countries of the Persian Gulf have enjoyed - even by their standards - periods of unprecedented growth. Traditional images of Gulf economies associate their enormous wealth with that precious commodity - oil - as well as, in latter years, gas.
Yet, mindful of depletion (and, in some cases, potential exhaustion) of natural energy sources, there have been tremendous efforts by governments across the Gulf to diversify their economies.
The significant sums generated by oil and gas exports have, most visibly, been poured into ambitious and spectacular infrastructure projects; construction of roads, bridges - even mini-cities and islands - as well as residential, commercial and industrial buildings, has continued apace.
Sectors such as banking, professional services (primarily accounting and legal) and, more recently, tourism, have all created more job opportunities than can possibly be met by local workers alone.
Today, countries across the Middle East are feeling the strain of current economic conditions, with the Gulf states being no exception. However, the number of international accountancy recruitment consultancies thriving there indicates that hiring activity is still busy. And ACCA students and members continue to express a keen interest in working for the region's employers.
Skills in demand
'The Middle East in general is getting more advanced with respect to reporting standards,' says James Sayer, business development consultant for recruiters Robert Half in Dubai. 'More companies are following IFRS; it's the norm now for companies here to follow either IFRS or GAAP.
'And because the region is maturing in the way it reports financial information, everything is increasingly regulated. Corporate governance experience is a hot commodity. The goal for many Gulf states is to promote themselves as ethical, transparent places to do business.'
In the absence of room for manoeuvre to drive revenues, organisations in all sectors are clearly much more conscious of keeping a tight eye on costs at the moment. Mark Thomas, associate director of the Dubai office of recruiters WH Marks Sattin, says, 'Accountants with broader financial control experience, or who have had direct exposure to budgetary issues - including spelling out tough, perhaps unwelcome messages on cost control to line managers and operational staff - are highly valued.'
A wealth of investment
Recruitment of foreign-trained accountants in the United Arab Emirates is largely confined to its richest states, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In Dubai, principal sectors include tourism, construction and property, and financial services: 'It's not nearly as dependent on energy as it used to be, although diversification of its economy has meant that it's been able to withstand the global downturn better than many other countries,' says Thomas.
But although oil and natural gas prices have fallen, energy still accounts for a substantial proportion of Abu Dhabi's wealth. That's fuelled the investment in infrastructure and other public projects, according to Thomas, creating different kinds of job opportunities. 'Some accountants have been able to shift over from Dubai, although their appeal to employers - especially as more people are prepared to move globally in the current climate - depends on their transferable skills, which to an extent are dictated by the industry they've come from.'
The job markets in Qatar and Bahrain - both states with advantageous tax regimes - have, to a certain extent, withstood the economic downturn. Qatar's government is investing heavily in building and construction, while it has also sought to corner the technology market for itself, in the face of Dubai's concerted efforts to establish itself as the region's financial centre. Maria Brown, who manages Reed Finance in Qatar, says, 'Recruitment spans not just multinationals who have set up here, but also Qatari and Bahraini firms. Construction and property firms have taken a large leap forward.'
Financial services: turmoil or triumph?
The burgeoning financial services sector in the Gulf remained, for a while, largely immune to the crisis hitting banks in the rest of the world. Banks avoided riskier and more exotic financial trading instruments such as derivatives, and so enjoyed a period of relative stability that left their peers in Europe and North America way behind.
Towards the end of 2008, however, Kuwait's Gulf Bank suffered huge losses after a major run caused by customers defaulting on debts arising from derivatives.
'It would be wrong for financial services candidates to assume there's a ready market for their skills here,' says Thomas. 'There was a strong interest in Dubai almost as soon as things started going pear-shaped in other world financial centres. So competition is fierce.
'Not only that but employers will also question commitment to relocate. Those candidates who clearly can't see beyond the sun and sand will be given short shrift.'
No more automatic pay hikes
There may be less reason for pessimism in the Gulf than in many other countries - but recruiters are now strongly advising candidates to 'get real'. Gone are the days when popping into a recruitment agency was the start of a short and incredibly sweet journey to a handsome pay rise.
'Employers know they're in a position of greater purchasing power than they were this time last year,' said one recruiter in Dubai. 'The seller's market of the boom years has largely disappeared.'
That doesn't mean, though, that employers have it all going their own way. When business-critical vacancies arise - those they have no choice but to fill - they may have a wider pool of candidates to consider, but budget restrictions can make it tougher to make attractive offers, especially to candidates already in work.
A lifestyle choice?
Despite the downturn, the tide of keen accountants continues to flow towards, rather than away from, the Gulf. 'People move here for the challenge of international experience and exposure to industry,' says Brown. 'And of course, there’s the quality of life, especially as families are looked after well.'
Although today, there is greater integration between local and foreign workers, traditional western-orientated communities still form the nucleus of life for most professionals who relocate. However, the days of jet-set hedonistic lifestyles, with tax‑free salaries, are long-gone: 'There's a less exuberant atmosphere, which reflects current economic conditions and the outlook in the short-to-medium term,' says Thomas. 'But that doesn't mean it’s all doom and gloom. If you're in work, in a more secure sector or organisation, you can still enjoy a social life that compares very well to the UK, Europe, North America or the major centres of Asia-Pacific.'
GULF GOALS: CAREER DO'S AND DON'TS
- Do carry out thorough research before you even think about making an application - working cultures, ways of life and the harshness of governing regimes vary considerably from state to state.
- Don't assume there's a glut of jobs for finance professionals; the world economy is catching up with several states, while recruiters say interest from potential relocators has multiplied over the past year: competition will be fierce.
- Do be prepared to make a long-term commitment; it can take time to settle into the Arab business culture, even though many employers are western multinationals.
- Don't neglect to network - life for foreigners revolves around expatriate business communities.
- Do talk to fellow ACCA students already living and working in the Middle East - they'll give you the lowdown on the pros and cons of specific states and sectors.