Dubai still the land of opportunity

The Life: The most stuffy and refined side of Dubai's financial services is undergoing a radical shakeup, sending large numbers of genteel private bankers to ink new drafts of their CVs in a hurry.

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The most stuffy and refined side of Dubai's financial services is undergoing a radical shakeup, sending large numbers of genteel private bankers to ink new drafts of their CVs in a hurry.

But local ties and some good-humoured Canadian charm go a long way, according to RBC Wealth Management, which is currently seeking to double its staff of 15 private bankers.

Private banks have found themselves facing slim pickings even as the region's oil wealth soars, and the global financial crisis that hammered family fortunes in the Gulf continues to have lingering effects.

But there are opportunities in Dubai, experts say, if you know where to look.

"Dubai looks better every time I come here," says Barend Janssens, head of wealth management at RBC Wealth Management's emerging markets unit. "There's still something to feed the economy."

The Toronto-based bank - which has operated an office in Dubai since 1974, long before it was fashionable among wealth managers - has built its growth on an affinity with diasporas around the world.

Among the firm's best clients are "families from Lebanon with links to Quebec, but who may do business in Dubai," he says.

Many Arab clients fled repressive regimes or sectarian strife in their home countries to immigrant-friendly Canada, from where they built their fortunes and eventually returned to the region. As RBC grows its staff, Mr Janssens expects to look for ways of tapping these connections among new hires.

"We do look for the link within Jordan and Palestine... there's a significant proportion with links with Canada," he says. "We start to connect on two or three levels."

Focusing on diasporas means building connections with high-net worth individuals from Brazil to the Middle East and Asia.

"I try to avoid discussion about airport lounges," says Mr Janssen. "They're little multinationals themselves... They've aligned themselves with people like myself in their world views."

Newly enriched entrepreneurs, who have been schooled in the United States or Europe are probably the wrong people from whom to "pick up a local flavour", Mr Janssens acknowledges.

Still, private bankers with this knowledge are not impossible to find. Banks including Emirates NBD Private Banking and HSBC Private Bank have seen staff poached in the past few months, while Switzerland's EFG-International has withdrawn from the Gulf altogether.

Yet, the industry is becoming more competitive as many wealthy merchant families have seen their fortunes wither as a result of the financial crisis. A report from Société Générale and Forbes finding that Middle Eastern billionaires have seen wealth levels fall by as much as a third since 2008. Traditional favourite destinations for investment, including Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, had fallen out of favour among Arab investors as funds for investment dried up during the financial crisis.

"The cash machine has stopped" for many hyper-rich from the Arab world, Mr Janssens says.

In addition to dealing with a prolonged stock market and property slump, "tiredness" among Gulf-based investors has also set in around investing in North America, leaving them to target Latin America and Africa as the few unexplored territories for investment.

But new clients are emerging.

Dubai-based diamond magnates are now competing with the Jewish and Indian empires who have operated for years from Antwerp and Mumbai. The reason? Changing tastes among emerging markets, and especially women, says Vineet Arora, director and head of the bank's Dubai office.

"They've taken a fancy for diamonds which wasn't there earlier," says Mr Arora. "You'll see a lot of women sporting big solitaire rings now."

Gold bracelets for weddings, he adds, are increasingly being viewed as old hat.

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