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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Investment Banking in Saudi Arabia: The Hottest and Most Overlooked Emerging Market in the World?
What do you think of when you hear “emerging market”?
And then maybe Dubai, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and a couple others.
But Saudi Arabia is probably not at the top of your list.
That could be a big mistake, as we’ll find out in this wide-ranging interview with a reader who works in investment banking in Riyadh.
We’ll cover why it’s a great place to be right now, how the finance industry there works, how a social scene without models and bottles works, and whether you should head over there.
How It All Started
Q: Most people don’t start out planning to work in the finance industry in Saudi Arabia. Were you from the Middle East? How did all of this start?
A: I was born and raised in the UK, and went to university there. I did an internship in equity sales before moving into investment banking.
At the time, the market was good so it wasn’t quite as difficult to land investment banking offers – I went to a large bank and planned to work in London for 2 years, and then spend my 3rd year abroad as part of the graduate program.
Q: So were you thinking of moving to Riyadh even back then? Where were you planning to go?
A: At first I was thinking about New York, Hong Kong, or Singapore – this was back at the peak of the bull market, and all of those seemed like good options.
Two years later, the sky had fallen and finance was completely different – and it seemed like those markets were now the worst ones to go into.
Around that time, my boss approached me to join his new team in Saudi Arabia – my bank wanted to focus on expansion into emerging markets, and they had asked my boss to lead our efforts there.
I didn’t know much about it at the time, but it seemed more promising than my other options, so I jumped on the opportunity.
Q: Ok, but wait a second here: you weren’t from the Middle East and I’m assuming you didn’t know Arabic. Was any of that a problem?
A: There were no language requirements – most business is conducted in English. Knowledge of Arabic helps, but it’s not required.
Since it’s an emerging market, they value people with strong technical skills from London and other finance hubs – they’d rather have someone from the West who had a strong grounding in finance vs. a local native speaker who didn’t know as much.
Moving to Saudi Arabia
Q: Interesting. So what’s the finance industry like in Saudi Arabia? I know nothing about it.
A: It’s very, very underdeveloped – which means that the growth potential is huge. Even though there’s a high per-capita income, there hasn’t been much of a finance market until recently.
Most deals are IPOs and M&A is still underdeveloped, though that’s starting to change.
Any banker coming from the US or Europe can quickly make a name for himself in this market, because it’s the equivalent of the Wild West right now.
Over the next few years there will be a surge in M&A activity as recently listed companies begin to consolidate, and ECM activity will continue to be strong.
Government intervention also helps – for example, there was a royal decree awhile back that ordered certain cement manufacturers and insurers to list over the next 2 years.
Q: Sounds like a good place to be. What about your clients – I’m guessing they’re mostly oil companies?
A: It’s certainly the biggest industry here – but there have been a lot of IPOs in the $100 million to $700 million range in recent years across many industries, including retail and transportation.
Beyond the oil companies, we also do a lot of work with local families.
In Saudi Arabia, around 20 families control the majority of major corporations and decide which companies to acquire and where to invest their assets.
Even though Dubai is close-by, they’d rather use advisors on the ground in Saudi Arabia so they can get day-to-day attention and build close relationships.
More so than other regions, all business in this country is relationship-based: once you get close to a certain family and build a relationship with them, it’s almost impossible for other banks to come in and steal their business away.
Once we start working with them, we advise on everything from acquisitions to IPOs to asset disposals – I even got to work on a Restructuring deal awhile back and worked directly with CEOs and other senior executives.
Q: Wow, so you’re getting a lot more responsibility than in London?
A: Exactly. Clients love the fact that I’m UK-educated and then worked in finance in London for a few years to learn the fundamentals really well.
A lot of times senior bankers and clients just let me run with ideas and don’t give me much guidance on what they want to see – it’s a huge change from other regions, where everything is micro-managed.
Much of what we do here is more “conceptual” than what you see in London or New York – since the industry is immature and since most businessmen speak English as a second language, they want simple explanations.
Just as one example, we don’t spend time scouring for dozens of non-recurring charges, adjusting Enterprise Value for capitalized leases and pensions, and being 100% scientific about everything because no one cares.
Q: This sounds much better than standard investment banking already. Since you get more senior exposure, can you move up quickly there?
A: Absolutely. Some of my friends have started as Associates and then moved up to the Director-level in only a few years – that would be impossible anywhere else, even in a frothy market.
The capital markets are growing faster than the domestic Saudi labor supply can support, and talent is scarce.
If you’re a Western-educated, Arabic-speaking investment banker there’s no better place to be.
Saudi Arabia vs. Dubai
Q: Let me stop you right there. You said “there’s no better place to be,” but what about Dubai? That’s more visible on most peoples’ radar vs. Saudi Arabia.
A: This is all my opinion, but Dubai would have been more promising back before they experienced massive growth (and then massive problems, and so on).
Most bankers in Dubai actually want to be involved with Saudi Arabian deals, but it’s a thorny political issue and Saudi companies prefer advisers in their own country.
The other issue is the cost of living – in Dubai it’s not much different from developed countries because of all the expats, but in Riyadh it’s incredibly cheap. I save over 70% of my pay even after accommodation and travel.
Q: Wow, you’ll have to tell me your secrets on how you pulled that one off. Even if you view Saudi Arabia as superior to Dubai, what about other regions in the Middle East? Is anything else “hot”?
A: There are a couple other promising places here – Bahrain, a tiny island country off our coast, has always been a hub for ex-pats and could also be good. Qatar is also promising, but it’s much smaller.
But these days most multi-national firms are choosing to go outside Dubai to establish a presence in the Middle East – for example, McKinsey is now setting up an office in Riyadh and they’re recruiting a lot of Saudi nationals rather than exclusively foreigners.
Life Without Models and Bottles
Q: Everything seems rosy so far. But let’s talk about the downsides of living in Saudi Arabia. You haven’t mentioned models and bottles yet – are there any?
A: No. Do not come here if you like going out, clubbing, and drinking.
Living in Riyadh only appeals to a certain type of banker – you have to like activities other than partying or you’ll have a miserable time here.
The social scene here is centered on “compounds” – residences for Westerners living in the country. Women can wear normal clothes there, there are no Saudi nationals, and you can drink alcohol.
Q: Wow. So what exactly do you do for fun in Saudi Arabia if drinking and clubbing are not options?
A: Mostly sports and outdoor activities – I play rugby, golf, and I’ve gone scuba diving here a lot as well. I’ve also traveled all around the Middle East, which is convenient because plane tickets to other countries are quite cheap.
Q: The social life sounds pretty surreal. What advice do you have for someone looking to work there?
A: Don’t even attempt to come here alone and figure things out – you can’t even get a tourist visa unless it’s during the pilgrimage or you’re on certain guided tours.
Everything needs to be done through your bank’s HR department – just make sure all your forms are in place and that your housing accommodations are set up before you get here, because it’s very, very tough to find housing by yourself.
The visa situation is also complicated because you need to get an exit visa to leave the country even if you have a work visa – and to make things even more fun, all the dates are according to the lunar calendar so you could easily end up with an expired visa.
As far as actually living here, I recommend starting out in a compound and building your social circle there before you move off to live in an apartment.
Q: What about family visits? Can relatives visit you at all?
A: Usually family trips are part of your contract – that’s standard in the region. Just make sure it’s spelled out explicitly.
Culture, Hours & Pay
Q: It sounds like the social experience is quite a bit different, to say the least, in Riyadh – but it also sounds like you’ve had free time for other activities. What are the hours like?
A: To start with, we have a standard holiday of 42 days per year along with 10 national days – so effectively we get 52 vacation days total each year.
That means I get to go back and visit friends and family every 2 months, which is a huge improvement over standard investment banking.
On average, I work around 50-60 hours per week. It is very, very rare to work more than 90 hours and I haven’t pulled any all-nighters in the 2 years I’ve been here so far.
During Ramadan, the hours are 10 AM to 3 PM for an entire month – and the senior bankers can’t even make you work more than that, because clients are just not there.
Q: Ok, I like the hours. Are they shorter because you don’t do as much busywork?
A: That’s definitely one reason. As I mentioned before, we don’t spend time scientifically adjusting comps for capitalized leases, pensions, off-balance sheet items, and so on – clients are just not sophisticated enough to notice or care.
Presentations are rarely more than 20 pages – English is a 2nd language for 90% of our clients, so they want very simple explanations. Pitching presentations are occasionally longer but 75% of the materials are standing/generic and require little to no updating.
M&I Note: To give you an idea of what 20 pages means, it’s rare to have a presentation less than 20 pages in the US – and pitch books can sometimes go on for 100+ pages.
Q: So what’s your average day like? Is there much downtime?
A: I’m usually pretty busy throughout the day – there’s not as much downtime as in other regions. I finish most of my work around 6 PM, but I might stay in the office for a few more hours depending on what’s going on at the time.
Q: What about the pay? Is it the same as London, minus the taxes?
A: It’s even better than that – in Saudi Arabia there are absolutely no taxes on anything. No income tax, no sales tax, and no VAT.
Salaries and bonuses are similar to what you would get in London at the junior level, but it’s all paid out in the local currency and we pay no taxes.
The currency is pegged to the US dollar, so there’s not too much FX risk if you’re a US citizen.
As far as bonuses, in peak years junior bankers could get around double their base salaries – but in bad years bonuses could drop to nothing or almost nothing.
When you get to the mid-level and up, a top Associate or VP in London will definitely make more than someone in Riyadh – but you might be working twice as much and you’ll lose a lot to taxes.
Q: Aha, so that’s how you save over 70% of your income. No taxes, no going out, and solid bonuses – what’s the cost of living like in Riyadh?
A: Very low. I spend about $5-$10 per day on food and non-rent expenses. Saudi Arabia is one of the few places that allows you to work 50% less and save 50-100% more than you would in New York or London.
Exit Opportunities: Working for “The Family”
Q: If you can get past the social scene, Saudi Arabia sounds like a pretty interesting place. Do you think you’ll be going back to London anytime soon?
A: Originally I was just planning to stay for a year, but I decided to extend my contract.
If you want to be an MD in London one day, coming here for 1 year to get the experience is a great idea – but if you stay longer than that, you’ll get used to 50-60 hour weeks and you’ll lose the cutthroat drive you need to make it to the top.
I may move back to London in the future, but it might be in a more specialized role (e.g. cross-border M&A) if I continue within investment banking.
Q: So it sounds like you move back to Europe quickly or you stay in the region long-term. What are the exit opportunities like after doing investment banking in Riyadh?
A: Similar to Europe, other parts of the Middle East, and everywhere outside the US, there is not as much of an obsession with exit opportunities here. Since the hours are good and the pay isn’t much different from London, many people don’t see the point in moving elsewhere.
If you do want to exit, private equity is a common route – it can sometimes be easier getting into top-tier funds here because many of them are relatively new to the scene and are looking for talent.
Q: What about sovereign wealth funds? I hear they’re kind of a big deal in Dubai.
A: Not so much in Saudi Arabia. The only “sovereign wealth fund” is the government itself, which has 2 organizations that use pension and state money to make investments. They don’t really use Westerners for any of these investments, and they’re focused on domestic infrastructure.
The #1 exit option is going to work for a “family” that controls major corporations here. They have between $200 and $300 million under management and would tell you, “Go invest our capital.”
You need to get approval before doing anything major, but they give you far more free reign with their capital than you’d ever get at a traditional PE firm or hedge fund.
It’s a nice arrangement and the only drawback, once again, is the odd social experience living in Saudi Arabia – you have to be open to it, or you’ll be miserable the whole time.
Q: So what’s your plan? Are you going to do banking and then work for one of these families? Or do you want to go back to the UK eventually?
A: I do want to return home eventually since I have friends and family back in the UK.
I’m interested in starting my own business one day, but at this point I’ll be staying in Saudi Arabia longer than I originally planned – lots of firms are coming into the region and setting up shop here, which creates some good opportunities if you’ve already made a name for yourself.
Q: Awesome, thanks for sharing your story. I think I learned more about Saudi Arabia in 1 hour than I have in the past 20 years combined!
A: No problem.
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