The Middle Eastern job market, once a hot spot for UK retailers, has shrunk in line with the global economy. But as Liz Morrell finds, there are still openings for the right applicants

Not so long ago, the Middle East offered it all – sun, sand, exciting career opportunities and, in some states, the added benefit of a tax-free life coupled with up to a 30 per cent jump in salary. UK retailers swarmed there in partnership with franchise businesses such as Alshaya, and UK staff followed suit. But like all things, the global financial crisis has had a radical effect on the market.

“It’s a very mixed picture,” explains Simon Whittington, managing director at Quest Search and Selection, which has a team focused on recruiting in the Middle East. “12 months ago it was booming, with retailers producing record figures. Franchise partners were in short supply and organisations were recruiting plenty of people. Today it is much quieter, with companies having scaled back on their recruitment plans,” he says. “It’s been a double-digit slowdown in percentage terms.”

Kevin Edmonds is managing director and chief executive of Dubai-based retail recruitment firm Gulf Six and also runs R3 Retail in the UK. He says things have changed dramatically in the past three months and that there are now a quarter of the jobs available that there were a year ago.

He adds that the effect is especially pronounced in the tourist and expat destination of Dubai, because the retailers operating there are concentrated within a handful of franchise operators.

Many of those franchisees – such as Alshaya, which runs brands such as Mothercare and Dorothy Perkins – have not only imposed recruitment freezes but have begun to slash headcounts. Many people are being forced to head back to the UK to find work.

Around 45,000 to 50,000 workers left Dubai in the first quarter of this year, and 10 per cent of them are estimated to have come from retail. So along with a shortage of new jobs, the existing market is shrinking. “Over the last few years if there was a really good candidate someone would take them on, but now it seems the key positions have been filled,” says Whittington. “People are much more cautious about moving jobs and in times like this are more focused on how to keep their jobs.”

Rich pickings

The market is shifting its focus. Edmonds says there are still vacancies, but clients are being far more selective about who they interview because it’s a buyer’s market. “The operations manager level positions at around the£50,000 to£70,000 level are still being recruited but store manager level roles are affected. At the junior level they are finding people themselves and at the more senior level no one is moving,” he explains.

David Mackenzie, director of HR, marketing and sales recruitment agency Mackenzie & Jones, has offices in both the Middle East and the UK and is based in Dubai. He says the market changed after the Ramadan festival last September. “The market was buoyant up until then, but then it just fell away,” he says. “Retail here was insatiable last year and we were placing people left, right and centre. There was a real appetite to get people from the UK because of the way they work, but also because it was mostly UK brands that were expanding.”

Much of the job cutting is coming from trimming the excess fat that was gained as a result of that hunger to fill positions. “A lot of businesses have been too top-heavy and not looked at their structures properly,” says a former Alshaya employee. “For some roles not the best people were recruited. That was born out of urgency because they didn’t have time,” she says.

Because Dubai is the most Westernised area of the Middle East, much of the focus for both jobs and retail expansion has been in that region. This market may be waning, but there are still some opportunities outside Dubai. Earlier this month, Alshaya executive chairman Mohammed Alshaya announced that US giant Office Depot would be among five new brands heading to the Middle East, despite the problems with the global economy. He added that he was committed to expanding the company in 2009.

Edmonds says: “If you want a career in the Middle East you need to think wider. Other markets like Saudi Arabia are doing well but don’t have the lifestyle benefits of Dubai.” Mackenzie suggests retailers also look at places such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain, which he says are still growing.

Furthermore, the opportunities for career expansion are good for those who are prepared to work hard. “It’s not a mature market so the areas you get involved in in your day-to-day role may not necessarily be what you did before. For example in the case of an operations manager role we are recruiting for at the moment, it’s a complete blue-sky role,” says Edmonds.

That means both demonstrating commitment and motivation, and respecting the local culture. Vicki Morisetti, managing director of Talisman Retail, which also recruits for the Middle East, says: “There are some individuals who think of it as the land of milk and honey, but you do have to work hard.”

The Middle Eastern climate also has its downsides, says Mackenzie. “It’s bloody sandy and very hot, and in Dubai there are only eight months of the year where you can work effectively because May to September is prohibitively hot,” he says.

There for the taking

But although opportunities in Dubai are restricted at the moment, they aren’t non-existent, says Mackenzie. He says while there will be more around for job-hunters in three or four months, any positions being recruited in this market are likely to be lasting because they won’t be offered lightly.

“There are no jobs here unless you are going for a very specialist role,”
says Mackenzie. “However, if someone contacts you about a job now then it is a genuine role that has been considered and planned for,” he says.

And Morisetti believes the Middle East still offers more opportunity than the UK. “The market is still stronger than ours and we find that generally people who move to countries in the Middle East enjoy it so much that they stay,” she says. Experts forecast that when liquidity does return to the financial markets, the Middle East will bounce back faster than countries such as the UK. And when that happens, it will once again offer the employment benefits it has boasted in the past.

CASE STUDY: A MOVE TO DUBAI

Mehrdad Aboutorabi moved from the UK to Dubai last October. Formerly area manager for Kurt Geiger’s airport business, Aboutorabi is now operations director for Boutique 1 Group’s Mono Brands division, namely Mulberry, Furla, Chloé, Missoni and Tabbah.

Despite the downturn, he says that Dubai is still an exciting destination for fashion retailers. “The Dubai market is growing at a fast pace, with the introduction of exciting new brands in keeping with the vibrant energy of the city. At Boutique 1 Group we have an eclectic mix of brands and products on offer,” he says.