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A career in Banking in the Middle East and Asia – who should you work for?

By Kyle Blockley, Co-founder & Managing Partner

I write this article having been based in Singapore for 8 years and Dubai for nearly 2 years and the shift in market conditions has had a dramatic effect on the banking world in both locations.

Banking used to be a world of hard work with lots of creativity. A world of long hours but big bucks. Happy people and big bonuses. Now, it is an Industry with a desolate future.

Where has all the money gone? Quite simply: to the regulators. If you are an International Bank that has not been fined by a regulator somewhere in the world, then hats off to you for being squeaky clean. With the regulators clamping down on banks all over the world there is little opportunity for these International companies to make the money they used to. I met with a number of Chief Information Officers over the years in Singapore and the only place they were spending money was on new systems and new controls to comply with the regulators. There was no money for the banks to be creative anymore, no opportunity to create new products to sell to customers and in turn no opportunity to grow their business.

Singapore and Dubai grew at a phenomenal rate during the 2000’s. Jobs were a plenty as hundreds of roles were created. Then, the combination of the Global Financial Crisis and the substantial rise in cost of employment (and living) in both locations meant a drastic change in strategy for the International Banks. The UK banks were the most obvious with RBS and Barclays selling off arms of their businesses’ as quickly as they could and reducing their headcount numbers as swiftly as it was possible whilst they pulled back from global expansion to focus on their core business again: banking in the UK. The “off shore” teams moved “off shore” yet again but this time to Manila and India and other International houses followed the same route with Credit Suisse re-housing hundreds of finance professionals to India and Poland.

So who do you go to work for if you want a career in banking in the ME and Asia?

The answer sits with you but I can offer my thoughts and suggestions to maybe help you make a more informed decision. Depending on how you view your career and at what stage in your career you are at, might make you think about where you end up. Dubai is perceived as a stepping stone to Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo being the major hubs) if you don’t want to take the risk of taking that first ex-pat assignment too far abroad. It can also be considered the last retirement role before heading home due to the tax free benefits and packages on offer. Whatever your thoughts on Dubai – it is not London, Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo. If it is a stepping stone then stick to the International Banks, as a good brand name on the CV always helps when moving on to the next opportunity. My concern with International Banks outside of their homeland is the uncertainty and fear of how long your position is needed within the organisation. If you want long term stability in a Banking role in Dubai then you should look for the local banks which offer stability and long term opportunities.

I feel the same way about opportunities in the Singapore Banking market. Over the last 3-4 years I have seen some good friends and some very talented professionals lose their roles through redundancies. Senior executives who had previously been paid well were left empty handed, no income and usually a couple of kids in International school which was half their yearly salary in fees. Most of these individuals worked for RBS, Barclays, SCB, Credit Suisse and Deutsche bank to name a few. Don’t get me wrong these are very good organisations to work for but you need to do your due diligence and identify the longevity of your role in such organisation. So again, if your looking for stability, the best place to look for work in Singapore is with the local banks as they are cash rich and offer stability above and beyond the international banks based there. The challenge right now however is getting into such organisations. Localisation (if there is such a word) is apparent all over the globe, in all major cities and Singapore is no different. If you are not Singaporean your chances are limited. If you are not a Senior executive it is near on impossible to get a visa to work in Singapore. I met an executive assistant to a CEO who works for a global MNC in Dubai the other day whose boss was moving to Singapore and she was asked to moved with her however she was rightly informed by HR in Singapore that they would be unable to secure her a Visa as they had to hire locally.

So, in summary, the financial markets are an unstable place to be right now. I am constantly seeing stories of more redundancies from this bank and that but to be honest I have been seeing this for the past 6 years now. So if you want a career in banking be careful whom you chose to work with. Do your due diligence, ask them about their 5 year plan (they rarely look beyond a 5 year strategy), on shoring and off shoring activities, have a think about the function you work in and how “needed” it is within the organisation. I am a believer of sticking with a company as long as you can but as times change you need to be thinking about how long a company will need you before committing to them!

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