Anxious Job Hunters Head for the Emirates

As New York and London shiver through the downturn, more MBAs are giving the Gulf region a try

When Akram Alami organized a job hunt trek to Dubai in November for London Business School students, he expected a limited response, as just 13 students signed up last year. Instead, the second-year MBA student found himself overwhelmed with applications, with 71 students clamoring to get a spot on the trip, which cost close to $3,000. Interest was so high that Alami, president of the school's Middle East Club, had to turn 33 students down due to limited space.

As the job market in the U.S. and Europe weakens, business-school students are increasingly setting their sights on the Middle East. Although the Gulf region is itself feeling the impact of the worldwide financial downturn, the job market remains fairly buoyant in financial hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, career services officers from top business schools said. Recruiters from sectors like financial services, private equity, and consulting are still hiring, if perhaps being more cautious and selective than before.

In response, business schools in Britain and U.S., including London Business School and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School are organizing job treks to the United Arab Emirates, connecting students with alums working there and organizing symposiums and forums in the region.

A Grim Job Market Elsewhere

It's all part of a push to help students find jobs in what is becoming an increasingly grim job market, said Grant Phillips, acting head of Oxford Business Alumni, who is organizing a Gulf job trek for Oxford University's Said Business School students in the early part of 2009, as well as ones to China, Singapore, India, and Africa.

"We have to help our students find jobs wherever that job might be." Phillips said. "Sectors like banking may still be challenging to get into, but there are potentially more opportunities in places like the Gulf."

City University of London's Cass Business School, which runs an executive MBA program in Dubai, will be running its first ever Dubai Symposium this spring to help the school's London-based students connect with local recruiters, as well as the school's Dubai-based students.

Stern Tests the Waters in the Gulf

While many British business schools are taking the lead in this area—a number have campuses and executive MBA programs in Dubai—a growing number of U.S. schools are helping students facilitate relationships in the Middle East as well.

For example, New York University's Stern School of Business's United Arab Emirates Initiative, a new student group, will be hosting a job trek to Dubai and Abu Dhabi over spring break next year for the first time. There are 23 Stern students who signed up for the trip, five or six from the Middle East, with the remainder of the students from the U.S. and Europe, said Joshua Weiner, one of the trip's organizers.

Wharton will be hosting a Global Alumni Forum in Dubai this March, which will connect senior executives, Wharton faculty, alumni and current students. Meanwhile, MBA students from the school's Arab Club and Private Equity Club have plans for job treks to the region this spring. Within the past year, the school's Arab Club has sponsored job trips to Dubai and Egypt, according to the group's Web site. The Private Equity Club also ran a trip to Dubai last school year.

Breaking In Isn't Easy

"The Middle East is clearly a very strong growth area," said Ivan Kerbel, senior associate director of Wharton's MBA Career Management Office.

"Historically, students taking jobs in the Middle East have represented a small percentage of graduating MBAs, but that proportion is growing more quickly than other areas."

That's not to say landing a job in the Gulf region is an easy task. The business community in Emirates like Dubai and Abu Dhabi is tight-knit, making it challenging for MBA students without prior experience in the region to break in, said Alami, who worked for five years in Dubai in the oil and gas industry before deciding to get his MBA. That isn't deterring others from trying to get a foothold. On the LBS trip, for example, only a few of the participants are from the region.

"The Middle East is a very, very network-oriented type of structure and a lot of deals get done because of the network you have," Alami said. "If you want to work there, you really need to know people on the inside," Alami said.

Grasp of Arabic is Helpful

Still, connections will only get you so far. With the economic downturn, Middle East recruiters are becoming pickier than ever, said Dominique D'Arcy, manager of the Manchester Business School's Career Management Services office. Manchester runs an Executive MBA program out of Dubai.

D'Arcy recommends students try to stand out from the crowd, whether that's obtaining at least a basic grasp of Arabic or having specific experience directly related to the position they are applying for. They should also have a deep understanding of the region and the culture and be able to explain to recruiters why they want to establish their careers in the Middle East, as opposed to New York or London, she said. "From the perspective of Middle Eastern recruiters, they have a glut on their hands, so they take people with experience in the area," she said. "Recruiters are really just able to cherry pick."

As elsewhere, landing a summer internship in the Middle East is one of the best ways to gain valuable experience and connections. That's the path Irfan Verjee, 32, a second-year MBA student at LBS, took when he accepted a summer consulting internship with Booz & Co.'s Dubai office. The experience helped him establish himself in Dubai, as well as get a sense of what it was like to work in the Middle East.

Weathering the Global Downturn

Verjee recently decided to accept a full-time offer with Booz in Dubai after graduation. His decision was cemented by participating in the November LBS trek to Dubai.

Verjee said he feels confident the region will be able to weather the global downturn. "I think more and more people are looking to work in emerging markets and Dubai is a great place to be in," he said.

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