Wall St.'s Denizens Look East
Finance Professionals Mull Relocating to Persian Gulf, But Unhappiness Over U.S. Policies May Pose Hurdles

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 27, 2008

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Fahad al-Deweesh, a vice president at a Persian Gulf investment firm, is getting e-mails from old finance classmates at the University of Southern California he hasn't heard from in years, asking what the job market here looks like for Americans.

Robert Sloan, a New York-based recruiter whose clients' starting-salary bids can run in the $1 million range, has logged a 50 percent jump since spring in the number of U.S. financial executives interested in sending résumés to Dubai and other Middle East financial hubs.

Europeans in investment banking and other financial fields have been flocking to the oil-flush Persian Gulf for months, propelled by the hope that emerging economies of the East will ride out any global recession better than New York or London will. In a phrase often used by British brokers and bankers, "It's Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai or goodbye."

Overcoming a long-held wariness about living in the Middle East, growing numbers of U.S. investment bankers and other financial professionals are mulling moving their careers here, having lost their jobs or fearing that possibility. But Americans hoping to make the East their refuge in the global financial storm will find a few more obstacles than their job-seeking European peers, warn executives and recruiters: Many here are unhappy with U.S. financial and foreign policies, and dubious about what is still regarded as Americans' brasher way of doing business.

One problem for Wall Street denizens hoping to relocate to the East is the broad perception that bad lending decisions by American bankers triggered the global financial crisis.

"Ooh, yes, that's not a good bit to have on your résumé, is it?" Briton James Gaubert said, wincing sympathetically, as he hurried on his job hunt through the high glass hallways of the Dubai International Financial Center.

"So, you've managed to screw up your banks, and now you've come to screw up ours?" a Saudi investment executive said of the attitude toward job-seeking Americans.

Politically, the U.S. military presence in Iraq means many here no longer view Americans as kindly as they did in the 1990s, some financial executives said.

"Let's just say that blue passport doesn't get you any favors anymore," said one longtime U.S. banker in Dubai.

The American and the Saudi, like some of the job-seekers and the newly hired, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing their firms' rules or career considerations.

Proportionate to their populations, fewer Americans than Europeans have experience abroad, making Americans less apt overall to move their careers overseas, said Sloan, head of U.S. financial services for the Egon Zehnder executive-search firm in New York.

And more so than Europeans, American job-seekers outside the petroleum industry have been wary of the Middle East. "People don't understand it is 1,000 miles from Dubai to Baghdad. A lot of Americans, they lump the Middle East together as being a problem," said David Johnson of the British-based Whitehead-Mann Partnership recruiting firm.

But as financial crises build, growing numbers of Americans are overcoming that reluctance and sending résumés to Dubai, the Saudi capital of Riyadh and other Middle East hubs, headhunters and financial executives said.

"A lot of people are realizing that their jobs are in jeopardy or their jobs are gone," Johnson said, and that this is "the time to make a move where things are happening."

Across the board, headhunters and executives here said they have seen a marked increase in the number of Americans interested in the Persian Gulf.

Six months ago, "we were begging people" within the firm to relocate here, said Oliver Holder, managing director of Deloitte Corporate Finance in Britain. "Now we have a choice."

For employers, it is a buyers' market. The number of investment bankers and others applying for financial jobs here is rising, even as financial firms in the Persian Gulf, feeling the global pain, trim or freeze hiring.

Headhunters and job-seekers tell of Gulf executives cutting salary proposals or rescinding job offers as they realize they can afford to be picky.

Many of those being sought for work here have experience in the Middle East. Makram Azar, a former executive for the now-bankrupt firm Lehman Brothers who is based in the Gulf, was hired last month by the New York-based equity group Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. to lead the company's expansion in the Middle East and Africa. Some other former Lehman executives have landed in Singapore and points further east of Dubai.

Deweesh, the vice president of the Amwal al-Khaleej investment company who has been hearing from old U.S. college buddies, said talented American financial professionals with good reputations will still generate interest here, despite disenchantment with U.S. financial and political policies. Sloan and Johnson say the same.

But while the newly hired and the hopeful are coming here from Britain, Switzerland, France and elsewhere, Americans remain thin on the ground.

Those who seek to move here will have to overcome several stereotypes about Americans, people here warn: that Americans don't know very much about the world, that their style in business negotiations tends to be too aggressive, that they demand high salaries and that they have trouble adjusting to life overseas.

Too often with Americans, it's "I don't know anything about the Middle East; can I have a job?" said the American banker, who has become less inclined to hire his countrymen.

"Americans like more infrastructure, don't they?" said one British sales manager who, until recently, was based in New York. Dismayed by the financial downturn there, he had just accepted a job in Dubai. He stopped in London long enough to hire a 10-person, all-British sales team to bring with him. "I mean, this isn't the West Village, is it?" he said.

Special correspondent Karla Adam in London and staff writer Nancy Trejos in Washington contributed to this report.

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