From London to the Middle East: How to Break Into Investment Banking in Dubai
The interviewee you’re about to hear from went from spotty A-Level performance and low first-year university grades to multiple bulge bracket offers.
And if you think that’s impressive, you’ll also learn all about:
- How to apply to both London and Dubai, and how different banks recruit in both places.
- The key differences in the recruiting timeline and interviews.
- Whether or not networking “works” – and the best way to break into Dubai if you live halfway around the world.
- What to do if you’re already working full-time and want to move to the Middle East.
Let’s get started.
How to Spend 4 Years on Your A-Levels and Still Come Out Ahead
Q: You mentioned you had poor grades and A-Levels – what exactly was your background? And what was your connection to Dubai?
A: My only connection to Dubai is that I was born in the Middle East and knew a little Arabic – but other than that I had spent my entire life in the UK.
My story began before I ever reached university, when I failed every single A-Level after my first year studying for them – and in the UK if you don’t immediately pass those exams after 2 years, few target schools will accept you.
Part of it was because my parents wanted me to do medicine, which I had no interest in. So I switched schools, and then changed my A-Level subjects to math, business, and I.C.T. instead, and passed those after 2 years with average results.
But by then I had taken 3 years altogether just to pass my A-Levels, so things weren’t going so well.
Then, after I got into a university here, I didn’t enjoy my courses and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I had figured out what career I was chasing, I was 3 months into my course at university but knew something had to change.
I knew that getting first round interviews at banks would be incredibly difficult because of my A-Level performance, lack of experience and being based so far away from any sort of networking hub such as London.
Q: At this point I would tell someone, “Study harder or start networking like crazy to have a shot at breaking in.” What did you do?
A: Neither one – I decided to change universities yet again, and got accepted to a different school by improving my A-Levels one more time. So now I had spent 4 years just getting my test scores up to a reasonable level.
This time around, I moved to London and completed all my classes there because I knew how important networking was.
I met lots of people in finance there, including some fairly high-up senior bankers at global firms – just from being out and about and chatting with people.
Q: Let me stop you right there because that sounds a little unbelievable – you networked with bankers just by bumping into them in bars and such?
A: It may sound ridiculous, but keep in mind that there’s an extremely high concentration of banker and finance-types in London, especially when you’re close to The City. So if you go out or even go to events there, you’re likely to bump into bankers.
It is random and it won’t always work, but I think you’d find a similar situation in other financial centers like New York and Hong Kong, and I’m not the only one of my friends that has had this experience.
Q: Fair point; pretty much everyone I’ve ever met in Hong Kong has worked in finance. So you’re out and about, networking with all these bankers – what happened next?
A: Toward the end of my first year at university I was offered a summer rotational internship, more on the markets side, at a global bank and spent 10 weeks there.
I also did a spring week at a different bank and another spring week in the corporate finance division of a Big 4 firm.
M&I Note: For non-European readers, a “spring week” is the opportunity to come in and shadow people at a bank for a few days – sort of like a mini-internship, but it’s more about how well you present yourself and network rather than your work performance, since you can’t do much real work.
They’re most common in Europe (and pretty much non-existent in the US), but you may also see them in other regions.
Q: Right, so what was this internship like?
A: They had no structured program for first-year students, so I did a rotation between capital markets, sales, trading, research, and more. I wasn’t doing much hands-on work – it was more just shadowing other people and helping them with random tasks.
But I told them at the beginning that I was more interested in investment banking rather than markets, and made this point again at the end of the internship.
They told me to apply online like everyone else – I wasn’t going to get special treatment just because I had completed this this internship, but completing it certainly gave my CV a huge boost. My decision to switch schools had paid off instantly.
Applying to Dubai
Q: Right, so let’s talk about how you applied for internships the next year. What was the process like and how many firms did you apply to?
A: I applied to around 50 banks, ranging from boutiques to bulge brackets, with roughly an 80/20 split between London and Dubai. I wanted to hedge myself because I figured Dubai might be slightly easier to break into, but might also be more difficult since I wasn’t on the ground networking.
I also knew that if I wanted to work in Dubai full-time, I would need an internship there to maximize my chances.
I applied to a few banks in Abu Dhabi and New York as well, but the focus was definitely London and Dubai.
Q: So when you say “applied to London and Dubai,” were you actually submitting separate applications to both offices? Or did London handle most of the Middle East recruiting?
A: Many banks do their Middle East recruiting via London – so most of the time I was actually applying to London and just indicating my interest in Dubai on the form.
And many banks start with in-person interviews in London first even if they’re recruiting for Dubai.
It does vary a bit by bank, and a few bulge brackets (e.g. GS and CS) are actually regional and recruit through Dubai – if that’s the case, you can’t apply directly via London recruiting and you have to network your way into interviews instead (this is specifically for summer internships – GS does recruit for Dubai full-time analysts initially through London).
For banks that didn’t recruit people directly, I just went through LinkedIn and looked up everyone I could find, and then sent my CV and cover letter directly to them.
Q: So you did a mix of formal applications and networking with people via LinkedIn.
But from experience, I know that contacting people online without talking on the phone or meeting in-person isn’t too helpful – so I’m assuming you also visited the region at some point?
A: Yeah, I was just about to mention that. In London, universities like LSE and Imperial College conduct trips to Dubai and open them up to 6-7 different universities. On these trips, they go around meeting with different banks and you get to network as much as you want.
Going on these university-sponsored trips to Dubai is the single best way to network your way into interviews in Dubai.
It’s possible to get in without networking – one of the offers I won came from a blind application and simply getting through interviews – but your odds are much higher if you go there in-person.
Q: Right, but what if you’re already out of school and working full-time? Or what if your school isn’t invited on these trips?
A: There were actually a few people who had already graduated and still went on these trips with us, so it’s not much of an issue.
And you can always find a way to go there even if you’re at a different school – just explain who you are, say you’re really interested in the region, and that you want to go along on their trip. There are so many students there that an extra one won’t raise eyebrows.
Q: So if you want to work somewhere like Dubai, you pretty much have to go there and do some networking on the ground, in-person, and then leverage that to get interviews?
A: Yes. You can get lucky and get offers without doing that, but to maximize your chances you really need to go there.
Long-distance networking just doesn’t work that well – you build a stronger connection and come across as far more serious if you go there in-person.
CVs, Interviews, and More
Q: OK, so you’ve applied to all these banks via networking and formal applications, and you’ve submitted your CV and cover letter. How are they different from what you might see in the UK? What are they looking for in Dubai?
A: The biggest difference is that they want someone with a genuine commitment to the region.
A lot of people want to go to Dubai just to avoid taxes, and they can see right through that – if they look at your CV and have no idea why you’re interested in Dubai, you’re out.
Your reason could be anything: maybe you have family in the Middle East, maybe you were born there or studied there, or maybe you have friends there.
I had an advantage since I knew the language and had a name that “looked” Middle Eastern, but anything could work if you’re creative enough.
And if you have no connections to the region, get them – you could always just travel there on your own or go on a university-sponsored event like I mentioned before.
Q: Right, so CVs are pretty much the same, but you must demonstrate some kind connection to the region. What about interviews?
A: One difference is that you must apply early in London or you have no chance – summer internship applications open in September, and I didn’t submit mine until late October, which pretty much ruined my chances.
In Dubai, though, summer recruiting starts in April with the exception of the banks that let you apply there directly via online applications for their EMEA recruitment (e.g.UBS and Citi).
The interviews themselves were not all that different – here’s what I encountered:
- Bulge Bracket A: Had 2 competency-based interviews in the first round (with an analyst and associate), a second round with an associate and VP, a third round with a VP and someone from HR, and a fourth round with a VP and MD. The first round was over the phone, and all the rest were in-person at their office in Dubai.
- Bulge Bracket B: The first round was a mix of competency and technical questions, and then the next round was all competency and market awareness-type questions. I had 2 interviews in their London office for the first round, and then did 2 phone interviews with people in Dubai. And for the final round, I still went through an assessment center as you normally would in the UK.
- Bulge Bracket C: Overall they were more technical in the first few rounds, but the final round was mostly competency questions once again.
In Dubai, they asked broader questions about everything from accounting to valuation to options, whereas in London they cared more about traditional topics.
But in London you apply to specific desks/groups, and so the questions are more straightforward and closer to the typical banking interview questions.
Q: That makes sense – it’s interesting to hear how much more “random” Dubai internships are.
What about the role of language skills? Do you think knowing Arabic made a big difference?
A: Not really. I was in Dubai for weeks and didn’t even use Arabic when I was there – it did help with networking and building connections, though, since I could use it as evidence of my connection to the region.
Only 2-3 banks said that Arabic knowledge was required, but I think it becomes more important at the senior levels (VP and MD). A big chunk of banks’ business comes from sovereign wealth funds, so you need the language to have a good shot at winning business.
That’s not to say that you can’t get by without it; I just think it would make your life much easier at the senior level.
Q: That’s interesting, because it contradicts what one of our other interviewees from Dubai said about a lot of business in the region being conducted in English – who’s right?
A: It’s hard to say since I haven’t started working yet – but it’s also an issue of culture as well as language.
One MD I met had worked in New York previously, and when he moved over as a VP he picked up on a lot of the cultural differences the hard way (e.g., you shouldn’t kiss a business partner’s wife’s cheek!).
I don’t think you “need” the language to advance necessarily, but it’s a big help because it lets you bond with clients more effectively.
Q: We mostly talked about bulge bracket recruiting – do boutiques have a presence there? Did you apply to any boutiques?
A: There are some “elite boutiques” (Moelis, Perella Weinberg in Abu Dhabi, etc.) here, but only around 6-7 total. And none of them recruits into Dubai directly at the junior levels.
So you’d have to find the name of a Partner at one of these places, and then contact him/her via LinkedIn or other means.
It is much, much easier to work at bulge brackets here because many boutiques only have 3-4 bankers total in their Dubai offices – they don’t have a huge need for junior bankers when the office is that small. They would just outsource any technical/deal work to London instead.
Q: You had quite a few advantages since you were still in school, went on this trip to Dubai, and had a connection to the region.
But what if you have none of that and you’re working full-time – what’s the best way to break in?
A: As I mentioned, there were a number of people with years of full-time experience who went on our trip, as well as grad students. So it’s always an option if you can take time off from work.
If you’re already in banking and want to move to Dubai, it’s easiest to push for an internal transfer and go through your current bank. About half the bankers I met out there had come through an internal transfer.
And if you really know no one in the region and can’t break in yourself, you might want to go back to school for a Master’s program somewhere in London, and then leverage that to network and go on these trips to the Middle East.
Q: So you don’t think headhunters would work very well?
A: I haven’t come across a single headhunter or recruitment agency that focuses on the region. Here, they really value direct relationships with people and meeting you face-to-face.
You’re better off contacting bankers, traveling here, and meeting up with them in-person – headhunters aren’t that effective, and they’re even less effective if you don’t have full-time work experience.
Q: What’s your view of Dubai in the long-term? Do you think they’ll ever finish all those buildings?
A: Well, I’m definitely interested in living in the Middle East once again and going back to my roots.
Around a year ago, I was not so certain about Dubai itself and doubted its sustainability, given how it was built and how many unfinished buildings there are – it’s an eerie feeling going there. You look around and say, “This place needs more people.”
But recently things have picked up and that’s primarily the motivation behind my decision to build my career there. Investors seem to be regaining confidence in the Emirate (Just take a look at the triple oversubscribed Dubai bonds issues recently). There is still a lot of opportunity there and I certainly see people moving back and the city recovering.
I think Abu Dhabi is a lot more sustainable in the short-term, and even if Dubai declines (which I doubt Abu Dhabi would allow), Abu Dhabi won’t be so affected. A lot of banks and sovereign wealth funds are also opening offices in Qatar, so that could be an interesting place to work in as well.
Sovereign wealth funds are engaged in lots of cross-border activity and are literally buying up anything they can, and I can see that continuing for quite some time.
In short, I’m optimistic about the Middle East as a whole and think there’s still a lot of opportunity there – over the next decade we will see many competitors in the region fighting to take over Dubai’s dominance, and competition is always healthy.
Q: Very interesting to hear from an insider in the region (even if you haven’t started working there quite yet). Thanks for sharing your story!
A: No problem; enjoyed the chat.
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