Despite chilly global credit markets, the Middle Eastern wealth management arena is a recruitment hotspot. Firms are busily hiring senior executives to spearhead new wealth management teams. For example, Merrill Lynch recently appointed Mazin Al-Shakarchi as a financial advisor covering Qatar from the Bahrain office. HSBC Bank Middle East has appointed Walid Boustany to the role of executive director, strategic investments, Middle East & North Africa. He will be responsible for HSBC’s strategic planning across the region. Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, has appointed Fadi Abuali as co-head of its Middle East private wealth management business, alongside current head Farid Pasha.
And there is more: the Central Bank of Bahrain has approved Douglas Hansen-Luke as Robeco’s new chief executive for the Middle East. Mr Hansen-Luke formerly worked in senior positions for ABN Amro Asset Management in Asia, Europe and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain-based Ithmaar Bank has appointed Shaikh Salman bin Ahmad Al Khalifa as managing director, group business development.
The rash of appointments seen in recent years will continue, barring an unlikely collapse in demand for wealth management, Professor Amin Rajan, chief executive of Create-Research, a UK consultancy on the investment management industry, told WealthBriefing.
Wealth managers are going into the Middle East in a big way, said Professor Rajan. This is a high-margin business to be in as banks get fees right along the value chain, he said. But although the region is lucrative, making money is not easy. Local investors typically punish poor investment performance quickly – often far faster than is the case with European or US clients, said Professor Rajan.
The real issue is to understand the client mindset. Client money [in the Middle East] isn’t sticky at all. When performance is bad they ask for a rebate, which is how it should be. If [wealth managers] can survive in the Middle East, they can survive anywhere, he added.
Barclays Wealth, for example, has every intention of doing more than just survive in the region. As an illustration of its ambitions, Barclays is moving into a new 14,000 square feet office in the Dubai International Financial Centre, which will be a hub for the firm’s operations in the region. Operating currently in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Barclays Wealth is also planning to make its Doha Qatar office operational this year.
Barclays Wealth leadership believes that the Middle East is a core area of growth. A substantial investment in human resources and capabilities and a rigorous expansion plan will lead to a substantial increase in the scope of operations, Soha Nashaat, managing director, head of Middle East, North Africa & Turkey for Barclays Wealth, told WealthBriefing.
Like Professor Rajan, Ms Nashaat says wealth management firms entering the Middle East from outside the region must understand the local culture if they are to make a success of their business. For example, more than 70 per cent of businesses are family-owned, which requires managers to forge long-term connections.
Wealth managers must understand and cater to the regional trends such as the dominance of family offices, Ms Nashaat said. Investors tend to be intolerant of risk and hold a high proportion of assets in cash and in offshore locations, she added.
Middle Eastern clients put great stress on strong relationships with investment advisors and dislike high turnover in staff, a factor that wealth managers must consider in their staff recruitment and retention plans, Stuart Crocker, chief executive, Emirates Platform and Southern Gulf States, HSBC Private Bank told WealthBriefing.
People don’t like seeing relationship managers moving on every two or three years to other banks, he said. His own bank, part of the HSBC banking group, serves clients both from local Middle Eastern locations as well as from its teams of specialists in Geneva.
The general background for wealth managers is certainly favourable. The investable assets of HNW individuals will rise by 50 per cent between 2006 and 2010, according to Barclays Wealth data.
The number of HNW individuals rose by 11.9 per cent in 2006 from a year before, according to the latest Merrill Lynch/Capgemini World Wealth Report issued last June. Wealth management intermediaries have only started to manage a significant share of assets in the region. Research from Zurich International Life, for example, reveals that expats living in the Middle East prefer to rely on their own judgment or friends and family when purchasing financial products. The survey showed that fewer than one in ten expats would enlist a financial advisor, either in their country of domicile or residence, to help them make the financial decisions. Financial advisors have a vast untapped market to go for.
While researchers like PricewaterhouseCoopers have warned that wealth management firms face a skills bottleneck, hiring staff for Middle Eastern slots is being helped by a benign tax regime and attractive pay packages.
Private bankers in tax-free Dubai earn 25 per cent more than their peers in Geneva and almost 40 per cent more than colleagues in London, according to a recent survey by Dubai-based headhunter Dunn Consultancy FZ-LLC.
Excluding bonuses, private bankers in Dubai with at least 10 years experience receive an average salary of $276,500 with allowances, compared with pre-tax earnings of $221,900 in Geneva and $199,100 in London, it found.
The economics of wealth management in the Middle East certainly look compelling. For the time being at least, the toughest challenge for players in the region is keeping up with the pace.