If not quite the glory days pre-crisis, the recruiters are hiring again, although the emphasis has changed. Now experience of the Middle East is what is wanted, says Michael Morcos of Heidrick & Struggles.
Headhunters back in the game as Mideast recruitment picks up
The headhunters are back. After a couple of post-crisis years when pickings were lean in the executive recruitment business, especially in the Middle East, the hiring and firing cycle has picked up again.
But it will never be the same as the good old days before 2008, says Michael Morcos, the managing partner in one of the biggest headhunting firms, Heidrick & Struggles, with responsibility for the region.
"Our world is being defined in pre and post-crisis terms. Lots has changed since 2008, and some of those things back then aren't coming back."
Before the crisis, he explains, executive searches for senior positions with Middle East firms tended to go global, looking for the best in the world. "Now firms want people who, above all, have experience in the region."
Executive specialisms have also changed. "We went through a period of very high growth in the boom years. Executives focused on the growth side of things, and didn't really think of the health and efficiency of their organisations.
"Two or three years on, they are beginning to realise the problems that boom period caused, the problems and the defects.
"Now, there is a greater trend towards hirings in the audit and risk side of the business, as opposed to big country-head positions, or marketing supremos."
There has been a sea change in the business. "Financial services was traditionally the biggest part for H&S business for decades. Somewhere in 2010, that flipped. Most financial services groups have either stopped hiring executives in this region, or drastically changed hiring practices. Margins on that kind of business are much lower and costs are constrained."
Now, industrial hirings are much more active. Mr Morcos says the big money is to be made in energy, petrochemicals, engineering and health care. "There is now a shortage of industrial engineers."
He is in a position to know. Originally from Sudan, Mr Morcos was educated in the United Kingdom and America in the aerospace sector, before setting up his own recruitment business in the Middle East some 10 years ago. Earlier this year, that business was bought by H&S and he joined the company as the managing partner for the Middle East and North Africa.
"This region has become a real focus for the worldwide business of H&S. Before, we were too busy in Europe and other markets to worry about the Middle East and GCC, but that's changed," he says.
Saudi Arabia is a key market, providing as much as half of the regional business, but faces its own challenges. "The demand and the market certainly is there, but many of the other 'enablers' are not. Saudi often cannot attract the right people because of lifestyle factors, and the bureaucracy there. So we service it from here, in Dubai. The flights to Riyadh and Jeddah are packed, but not many executives want to live in Saudi."
Nonetheless, he believes there has been an improvement in the quality of home-grown Saudi talent in recent years. "There are now several generations of trained executives there, and that works in our favour."
The Emirates is the second-biggest market in the Middle East and North Africa region, with up to 20 per cent of H&S business.
Some observers regard the headhunting business as a lead indicator of economic activity, and Mr Morcos certainly feels the executive jobs market is telling us that the UAE economy is back in growth mode.
"The outlook is not as positive as in 2005, but it's certainly got much better. Companies are now able to plan for growth again."
One challenge he identifies is the reluctance of Emirati citizens to consider jobs in the private sector. He admits to having placed only "two or three" nationals in executive positions, and there is little sign of that changing.
"I don't have a list of nationals who are job seekers. I have an idea of who's who, and if one of the job requirements is that the candidate must be an Emirati I will try to entice them to move. But it's a difficult process."
The other two big traditional markets, Qatar and Bahrain, also present challenges. "Qatar has huge resources, of course, but they're still struggling to get it right domestically. You could argue they're moving to the Qatarisation too quickly, and there is a lack of experience among young Qataris."
Bahrain "will remain important for the oil industry and for access to Saudi, but I don't see any large- scale movement into Bahrain. Society is still too divided".
So, the big question: are the days of the multimillion-dollar packages, the headline-grabbing appointments that can be lucrative fee earners for the recruiters, also coming back?
"I don't see it in finance, but in industry some positions command big premiums. But it's moving away from the all-inclusive expat package with housing and all other kinds of benefits. Now it's all being aggregated into cash," he says.
The headhunters won't mind that.