June 27, 2016

Tarek Sherlala: On the UAE’s financial services talent crunch

Tarek Sherlala

Tarek Sherlala


My colleague Rajai Ayyash wrote an interesting article last week exploring whether Abu Dhabi’s new financial free-zone (ADGM), could compete with Dubai’s DIFC, in the intensifying competition to become the leading financial hub of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and indeed Middle East and North Africa (MENA). 

I agree with him, there is more than enough potential in the region for them both to flourish and compete on the global stage. Putting aside local friendly rivalry, for both to be successful though, one area of concern is the talent crunch in United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the GCC in general.

If we look at Dubai, it is one of the top five fastest growing cities in the world – a place where global business can find talent, and a place where global talent can find opportunity. Yet competition for skilled financial services talent is incredibly fierce with employment surveys regularly indicating businesses find it challenging to source the right people to fill critical roles. 

The talent crunch is even more acute in specialist roles such as Islamic banking, risk, compliance, ‘big data’ and fintech. I remember at the SIBOS conference in 2013, which was held here in Dubai that year, one of the biggest issues discussed was talent shortages in tech-related positions. We face the same challenges today. Finding specialist talent is difficult, retaining it is nearly impossible.

Some people say data is the new oil, but to harness it you need to have the right skills. The skill sets needed for these types of roles are complex and varied. Skills are hybrids of business acumen, financial services and technology; where computer science, social science and financial expertise collide. 

Most people with the skills needed today sit outside the GCC region. People who are able to analyze data, interpret it, and deliver it to clients in a meaningful and actionable way. People who can anticipate client needs, spot emerging threats and develop solutions to address them. People who are wired to innovate and can continue the digital transformation of our industry. 

One way business and GCC political leaders can address this is by stepping up promotional activities highlighting the attractiveness of the region in locations where talent pools are already deep – New York, London, Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, and so on.   

Second is for business to utilize existing pools of local professionals and provide them with the necessary specialist training. Many institutions invest time and effort in developing the skills of commercial bankers straight out of college. But very few do the same for more niche roles – much to their own detriment.

A third way could be to form closer ties with universities across the Gulf and collaborate with them to structure qualifications which are aligned with financial services’ changing needs. One of the reasons for the Gulf’s talent shortage is that higher education has not yet caught up to with the changes in specialist banking skills needed by the industry today. Right now, very few universities have graduate programs that emphasize Islamic finance, big data, risk management and so on. To encourage more people to acquire the necessary skills and expertise to fill the specialist roles available, we need more comprehensive certification and training programs.

I believe talent shortage is probably the single biggest threat and barrier to future growth in Gulf financial services centers. Whilst efforts in the UAE to improve its economic prospects are likely to contribute to a parallel strengthening of the talent bench across the Gulf, more needs to be done if we are to sustain the rate of growth needed and leverage the significant potential on offer today in the financial services sector.