by Brian DeChesare Comments (143)

Investment Banking: Dubai Edition

Dubai SkylineDubai: the hottest emerging market in the world? The best place to work in finance?

Or is it all just a mirage in the desert?

The truth is somewhere in between, as you’ll find out in this interview with a current investment banking analyst who works in Dubai.

We cover this reader’s background, what the investment banking industry in Dubai is like, how you break in, and the all-important exit opportunities.

In the Beginning…

Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you got interested in Dubai?

A: Sure. I’m from the Middle East originally, and was studying at a university in Europe a few years ago.

As part of my school’s requirements, we had to complete internships – most people opted for Paris or London, but I was interested in more exotic locations.

I was from the Middle East and had been reading a lot about Dubai, so I decided to apply for internships there instead.

Q: Ok, so you’re in Europe but you want to work in Dubai. How do you actually apply for these internships? Was it just through on-campus recruiting?

A: One difference between Europe and the US is that when companies come to campus here, no one takes resumes or does interviews – they just come for informational and networking purposes. Then they tell you to apply online, go through numerical tests, assessment centers, and so on.

I went to all these networking events and also did the online applications afterward – in addition to both of those, I contacted alumni and searched for people with similar backgrounds to me on LinkedIn.

Q: You said “similar background” – what do you mean exactly, and what kind of response rate did you get?

A: I looked for others who were from the Middle East, had studied in Europe, and then gone back to the Middle East to work there.

Surprisingly, I got a higher response rate from people I found on LinkedIn than from alumni.

This was probably because we had a shared background, and because most other students in Europe were not thinking about working in Dubai.

Q: Wow, very surprising. So what were the results of your internship search?

A: I got a 6-month internship at a bulge bracket bank there – in Europe it’s common to have 6-month internships vs. the summer internships you see in the US.

Then I went back to school the next year to graduate, and accepted a return offer from the same bulge bracket bank.

The State of the Market

Q: So is Dubai amazingly awesome? Is it the end-all-be-all or are people drinking a little too much Kool-Aid when they talk about the finance industry in the Middle East?

A: Dubai is overrated. When most people think of it, they look at all the huge buildings and the media stories about construction projects here, and all the oil barons using it as their playground.

The truth is a bit different – while there’s a lot of growth here, most of the companies we work with are outside Dubai.

We’re responsible specifically for MENA (the Middle East and North Africa), which consists of about 20 countries.

We cover all industries and all products, but most of our clients are sovereign wealth funds, financial sponsors, and other holding companies.

They’ve definitely been on a buying spree, so from that perspective it’s interesting.

When it comes to actual deals, though, we often manage the relationship and then the industry team from London handles the more technical details – especially on larger deals.

Q: Interesting – so is the finance industry there dominated by other bulge bracket banks that leverage their presence in London? Or are there local boutiques as well?

A: Regional boutiques do exist, but they’re limited to smaller IPOs and smaller deals in general – anything large is handled by bulge bracket banks based in the US or Europe.

Wheeling & Dealing

Q: You mentioned that the London industry team often handles the more technical details. So do you get to do much modeling work? Or is it all qualitative?

A: We get exposure to both. The London team has more of a presence on larger deals – they argue that they have more expertise and that they should control all the models as a result.

For anything smaller, we do the valuation and modeling work and they’re less involved.

If it’s an intra-regional deal – both the buyer and seller are from our region – then we’re also more involved and the London team doesn’t do quite as much.

Overall, though, it’s a lot different from working in a large group in London or New York because there are more “random” tasks and the teams here are smaller.

Q: You mentioned smaller deal teams – how are they different from what you’d find in London?

A: Our entire team is less than 30 people, and there are fewer mid-level bankers. We have a bunch of Analysts, a few Associates, and then some Directors and MDs but relatively few VPs.

So you get to work more closely with the MDs, and it’s not unusual to work directly with a Director or MD as an Analyst – which would be unusual at a bulge bracket bank in New York or London.

Lifestyle & Culture

Q: So how much do you work each week? Is this still banking or do you work fewer hours because it’s a regional office?

A: It’s still banking. I was working about 100 hours a week for the past 2-3 months, but like any other banking role there’s downtime and slow periods as well.

The average hours aren’t much different from what you’d expect in banking, but there’s less face time and they care more about work getting done vs. staying in the office late every night.

One part unique to the Middle East is that the entire region shuts down in the summer – CEOs are traveling and on holiday, so August is our slowest month (also due to Ramadan coinciding with the summer this past year).

M&I Note: The same is true in the US, though not to the same degree – lots of executives and bankers take their vacations in August.

Q: What about the culture? Do you hang out with your co-workers outside work?

A: There isn’t too much interaction outside work, even when we have free time – as an intern it was much different and Analysts / Associates would usually spend time with each other.

We might have dinner together, and we do have “team events” every few months to build camaraderie.

The Bottom Line

Q: Let’s talk about money. How much do you get paid, and is Dubai more lucrative than London?

A: Base salaries and bonuses are both the same as what you get in London… BUT we have no taxes here so effectively you make almost twice as much.

We also get a housing allowance of $30,000 US Dollars per year, which is also untaxed.

Normally it’s a bad idea to go into banking for the money, but if you work in Dubai you will make more than in other regions.

M&I Note: This trick doesn’t work 100% if you’re a US citizen – you still have to pay some US income taxes even if you live abroad.

You can deduct taxes for up to around $100K in income – which saves you a lot – but your taxes won’t be exactly $0.

Disclaimer: I am not an accountant / lawyer. This is not tax advice – please consult a professional.

Q: Wow, I’d move to Dubai in a heartbeat if I didn’t have this annoying US passport. What about exit opportunities?

A: Unlike the US, a lot of people here actually go into banking and plan to stay in it for the long-term. The whole concept of “Do this for 2-3 years and then jump to PE” isn’t as prevalent here.

Part of that is just a cultural difference in Europe and the Middle East, but part of it is also because pay at sovereign wealth funds and private equity firms here isn’t significantly higher than what you would earn in investment banking – so many people don’t see the point in leaving.

If you do want to move elsewhere, the 2 main options are sovereign wealth funds (SWF) and private equity firms – both local funds based here and then international ones like Carlyle and KKR.

One appealing aspect of SWF is that you get a high salary with great hours – one of my friends leaves at 6 PM every day and makes banking/PE pay.

I’m not sure what I’ll do, but one perk in my program is that I can choose to move to another region after 2 years, so that’s an option as well.

How You Can Work in Dubai

Q: Working at a sovereign wealth fund in Dubai is starting to sound good to me. What advice do you have for anyone looking to work there?

A: If you’re already in banking, the path of least resistance is to ask for a 1-year rotation to Dubai.

I’ve had friends who have done exactly this – they did internships in the US or Europe, got return offers, and then asked about switching to Dubai instead.

It’s tough to come here directly if you haven’t done an internship or you’re straight out of school – I would not recommend just showing up here and saying, “Hi, I want to work here, who will hire me?”

Q: So you wouldn’t recommend just applying directly to Dubai via online applications, for example?

A: You can do that, but the process is less standardized than it is in Europe. It varies by bank and in some cases you can just apply directly online via the London career website – but overall it’s more haphazard than Europe.

Q: Right. But let’s say you don’t know anyone in the region and you’re not in the position to apply for internships or full-time jobs directly – what do you do?

A: Headhunters are probably your best bet if you really don’t know anyone and have no strong connections to the region.

Just get a list of headhunters in the Middle East and start sending out your resume and contacting them – that’s not the ideal way to break in, but outside of networking and the formal application process it’s all you can do.

Q: What about the language requirements? Do you need to know Arabic, or is it just a plus?

A: It’s not necessary – plenty of people on our team come from the US or Europe, so they don’t know Arabic at all.

However, it is perceived as a plus and if the bank is down to 2 candidates with similar credentials, the one who knows Arabic is more likely to get the offer.

At the Analyst level there are more Arabic speakers, because sometimes we have to translate documents.

Occasionally firms will also create specific positions where the language is required – for example, KKR in Dubai was looking for Arabic speakers awhile back.

Q: Awesome. Thanks for your time – I learned a lot!

A: No problem.

Coming Up Next: Even more countries, groups, and stories. We’ll also take a look at another “hot” Middle Eastern country that has been off most peoples’ radar and compare and contrast it to Dubai.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Avatar
    Ramyar Satarzadeh

    Hi Brian,

    Second year BBA student here from the Schulich School of Business (Target in Toronto, Canada). How would you go about pursuing a full time/internship IB role in Dubai?

    1. You usually have to go there in-person to network, which in the current environment with a virus outbreak, recession/depression, and travel shut down everywhere, is not feasible. If things are restored without human civilization collapsing, then get started by finding alumni and others in the region and seeing if you can visit as part of a school or academic trip and network during that.

  2. Hi Brian,

    How would you go about recruiting for associate positions at sovereign wealth funds as a EB/BB IB analyst in New York?

    1. We haven’t covered SWFs in detail before, but there’s some coverage of general SWF recruiting and tips here:

  3. Hello Brian/Nicole!

    I am a 2nd year student in a UK-based “somewhat semi target” University (Doing BBA) here in Dubai. My GPA is 3.9/4.0. I have no previous experience of job, and no connections to start networking. What are the chances of me scoring an internship here in DIFC(Dubai International Financial Center)?

    It seems that there are major BB’s here like GS, Blackstone, Rothschild, UBS, etc. But their offices are quite small and I fear they don’t take in interns at all. And if they do, they’re from top target schools from Europe.

    Aside from HSBC, CITI and Standard Chartered what BB’s do I apply in for an internship and when? Is there any article or a guide for landing internships here in Dubai specifically.

    If I fail to score an internship here, is it best for me to transfer to a top target school in North America or Europe to slip into IBD at a BB?

    1. Please see:

      You have some chance of winning an internship there, but you’ll have to be super-aggressive with networking and calling/emailing firms. If you are a U.S. citizen or can easily get work visa, North America is better. Otherwise Europe.

  4. Good day!
    I am a student of CA In Pakistan and I am very much interested in IB.
    What path do you suggest?
    CA pakistan has this requiremnt where u have to do an internship of 3.5 years in any of the local audit firms and the presence of the Big4(PwC, Deloitte, EY, KPMG) is a huge relief or you can join any industry you like!
    What do u suggest as there are not many specialized IB in pakistan so should I start an internship in Advisory department of any of the big4 or should I join an IB?

    Which will help me the most in my career as an IB?
    Looking forward to your reply.

    1. I don’t know much about Pakistan personally, but yes, probably one of the Big 4 or a boutique bank would be your best bet.

  5. Hi,
    I’m currently in Big 4 Transaction Services with 2 years work experience, I’m aiming to get into IB or a top MBA program (or both). At the moment the only opportunities that come my way are regional (Middle East) Sovereign Wealth Funds and PE Houses (US3-10bn AUM).
    What are your thoughts on making a move to such a place for International IB/PE recruitment or for MBA admissions.

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      I think both opportunities are useful for MBA admissions. I think the PE role maybe more relevant to your career on the buy-side (PE); less so IB.

      1. Hey Nicole,

        Thanks coming to you for advice again!

        Quick update, as mentioned previously I’m with a Big 4 Transaction Services team in the Middle East, have been offered by the firm the opportunity to move to our London office still in TS as well as having an offer for a regional (Middle East) PE house (>$5bn AUM).
        For both MBA admissions and for future opportunities in general, which do you think would be the better option and for what reasons please?

        1. The PE offer is probably better because it’s more relevant to IB and will make it easier to move back into PE in the future. Not sure either one makes a difference for MBA admissions.

          1. Thanks Brian, by doing the regional PE house role would you take a candidate less seriously than someone from a developed market? i.e. two candidates one is in BIg 4 London the other is in Middle East PE, do you perceive one better than the other based on geography? (the London guy must be better = new york vs. dallas type argument)

            That’s my worry, never had developed market experience. Appreciate your thoughts!

          2. Yes you will be taken less seriously, but some PE experience is still better than no PE experience.

  6. Hi Everyone, my name is Ali and I am from Pakistan. Currently, I am doing MBA from a local university with majors in Finance. Before pursuing my MBA, I worked for an Asset Management Company in its Marketing and Sales Department and before this I worked for a bank in its Branch Banking Department. Now I want to pursue a career in an Investment Bank. Presently, the investment banking industry is not that developed in our country so I have decided to move to Dubai for job search in coming July 2016. I would appreciate if somebody provide me an advice in this situation. Regards, Ali

  7. A BIWS customer and avid reader of M& here.

    I have some questions.

    I am a Korean native and I went to a private university in the US (Top 30). Then I served in the Korean military as an officer. During my service, I happened to be deployed to the UAE (Abu Dhabi, mostly). Now that my service comes to an end, I am heading to business school for my MBA degree(one of M7 schools).

    I loved what I saw in Dubai while I was in the UAE. Do I have a chance to land a summer internship in my 1st year in the MBA program and land a permanent position in the UAE? My concern is 1)I don’t have a banking experience and 2)I don’t speak Arabic. The only working experience is what I have in the military.

    Plus, is there anywhere else I can ask some questions other than this comment box?

    Thank you.

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      If you don’t speak Arabic, it can be more challenging. Perhaps you can speak with Korean banks in the industry, as well as branch out to other locations (outside of UAE) say London, NY, Singapore. If you have joined any finance clubs/done an interesting projects in finance, you can talk about that – The best way to overcome 1 and 2 is to discuss your experience of valuing companies, modeling, researching your own stock pitches, etc.

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply.

        I am going to Chicago Booth this September. Do you think it is a good idea to reach out to Booth alums residing in Dubai through Linkedin? I don’t know how they(particularly, local bankers) will perceive sending emails directly . My goal is to land a summer internship next year. Do they respond pretty well?

        I know British schools have closer ties to the region. How is moving from a US business school to Dubai?

        1. Avatar
          M&I - Nicole

          Yes, I think it is a good idea. You have nothing to lose. Some bankers may respond to you and it is great to build a connection in Dubai. If you plan to do a summer internship, perhaps you may also want to consider Chicago/New York. Booth is a renowned school internationally so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  8. Avatar

    You guys should really get around interviewing someone working at a Soverign Wealth Fund and how it’s like in detail. There isn’t any info on the job life within that on the Internet, so it’d be great if you guys do that for the readers!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Thank you for your input! We will keep your suggestion in mind!

  9. Hi there,

    I graduated with a Master degree in Applied Finance at the beginning of 2014. I did my degree at an average school in Australia, but graduated with excellent grades.
    I have been working in a financial services company, specifically in managed funds administration for a year now. I’m currently working on my Excel financial modelling skills through your BIWS course. Considering, that I’m fluent in English & Arabic, what are my best choices if I want to get back to the middle east to work for an IB , PE , Hedge fund..etc? Also, I forgot to mention, I’m now 30 years old, and I’ve got about 4 years of experience as an accountant in a large company in the Middle East, will that help?

    Many Thanks

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Yes this can potentially help, but having IB experience is probably most useful: maybe helpful to you

  10. Great info guys,

    I know 3 languages but my main one is English. I was wondering if you could name the countries that would hire English speakers but whose main language is not English?

    Apparently the middle-east is one such place and I have heard that English is used extensively in the Netherlands and one can get into IB there without speaking Dutch. Also Singapore and Hong Kong, though from the other article it seems you must know at least a Asian language.

    Can you think of other non-English speaking countries that hire primary English speakers?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      I was about to say Singapore, HK, or even smaller Asian countries like Indonesia, Philippines

      Most non-English countries require local language skills

  11. Hi M&I,

    I would like to ask regarding the IB boutiques in Dubai. I have been offered an analyst position at such firm, with a tech in emerging markets focus, with offices on all 5 continents, but still the brand is not present in Deal Tables. All VPs, MDs, and Partners have bulge-bracket backgrounds, hence I would expect a great learning experience.
    I also have an M&A option for a 3rd tier European bank (think UniCredit, Rabobank, Raiffesen).
    What should I consider when evaluating these offers? (outside of compensation package)

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      #1: Which team you like the most #2: Whether you want to do tech or M&A. If you want a more general option the latter maybe a better choice. If you know you want to do tech the former maybe better. I think both banks’ brand names’ caliber are pretty similar so I wouldn’t worry about that

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