Bankers working for local offices of US and European institutions are looking with fresh eyes at jobs at UAE-owned banks in an effort to avoid yet another round of salary and job cuts as the global financial crisis wears on.
Compared with five years ago, when hiring was in full swing, the mood could hardly be more different now, said Charles Francis, a partner at the financial services recruitment firm The GCC Partners.
"Now the music's stopped and a lot of people have left the region. International banks here are retrenching," Mr Francis said.
Banks are now ensuring that new hires have experience working in or covering the region or fluency in Arabic, he added.
Withdrawal of international banks from the UAE has also created opportunities for local banks. HSBC, Barclays and Nomura have cut staff in the UAE, while Deutsche Bank has relocated its head of equity capital markets to London. Local and regional banks are "picking up market share where international banks are leaving it on the table," Mr Francis added.
Many bankers also view regional lenders as safe havens, he said, since government-owned banks such as NBAD or Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank are unlikely to desert their home markets.
Among locally-owned banks, a number have indicated a desire to increase staff to build new businesses. National Bank of Abu Dhabi recently announced it had poached a new head of mergers and acquisitions, Michael Aissaoui, from the French lender Société Générale.
Emirates NBD Private Bank hired 15 new bankers last year as it expanded in the UAE.
The new recruits came "not because we're adding lots of capacity in the hope, it's because we're seeing more and more business", said Gary Dugan, the bank's chief investment officer. "A number are coming from Europe, from Geneva or London." Falling salaries and declining bonuses linked to shares were convincing many of those bankers to look overseas, he added.
Falcon Private Bank, fully-owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, is expecting to hire between five and 10 new private bankers this year for its UAE operations, comprising up to a third of its total intake of new staff this year.
Falcon is seeking to "aggressively hire good people and they're very difficult to get", said Eduardo Leemann, the bank's chief executive. "That's a key impediment to growth." But local banks have not been immune from cuts, with Dubai's Shuaa Capital reducing staff twice in the past year.
UAE banks are not experiencing the same public outrage over pay and benefits as in other markets, however. In the UK, banks bailed out during the financial crisis, including Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, have drawn public fury for bonus levels.
Amid steadily worsening cost-to-income ratios at investment banking units, even banking giants that escaped government takeover have taken an axe to staff benefits.
Goldman Sachs reported it would slash compensation and benefits earned last year by 21 per cent to US$12.22 billion (Dh44.88bn).
Credit Suisse, on the other hand, has paid bonuses earned last year in structured notes backed by derivatives instead of cash.