‘The cliche that staffing is the hardest thing is absolutely true,’ says general manager of Addax Investment Bank Yousef al-Essa. ‘The bottleneck is people – good, qualified professionals to run projects and companies. Money is a lot easier to find than talent. If you have the team before you raise the money, you can move faster.’

Corporate and investment bankers, as well as private equity analysts, are in particular demand. Typically it takes anything from four-six weeks to find a candidate for a position. It can take much longer, especially as competition for staff is increasing. The demand is not only coming from within the region, either. Increasingly, the traditional recruitment pool of India and Pakistan is drying up as their home markets take off.

‘It’s a very tight job market across the whole region. People are coming from the West, but it’s not as easy to get an Indian professional to leave a good job in India at past prices or anywhere near them,’ says Al-Essa. As a result, institutions are turning their attention closer to home.

The flood of qualified Arab personnel into the Gulf financial sector has been described as a reverse brain drain. ‘We are able to get talented professionals who have been trained among the best,’ says Frederic Sicre, executive director at Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital, which has almost doubled its workforce in the past six months. ‘Investment bankers are willing to come back. Arab professionals in multinational organisations in London and New York are increasingly interested in job opportunities here in investment and acquisition finance. We have been hiring a number of these people.’

The influx of Arab professionals, some of whom are no longer comfortable living in Europe and the US post-9/11, mirrors the repatriation of Arab funds. Others are being drawn back by the upswing in opportunities and improved career prospects, accompanied by hefty salary packages. Increasingly, such packages include incentives taken for granted in Europe and the US, such as stock options, profit sharing and bonus schemes.

The manpower shortage is inevitably forcing up salaries in the Gulf. The banking and finance sector led the field, ahead of construction and real estate, in salary inflation in the 12 months to August 2005, according to Dubai-based Gulf Talent. Pay in the sector increased by 7 per cent on average. Qatar saw the steepest salary inflation at 8 per cent, closely followed by Saudi Arabia at 7.4 per cent and Kuwait at 6.9 per cent. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman the rise was driven by competition for human resources, while in Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait, the increase was due more to the soaring cost of living.

Banks can afford to pay higher salaries, thanks to record-breaking profitability. In the UAE, a bank’s head of corporate finance or retail can expect a salary of up to AED 1 million ($273,000) a year and the head of marketing or another major function could take home AED 600,000 ($164,000) and a relationship manager up to AED 400,000 ($109,000).

Dubai’s reputation as an increasingly expensive place to live is not putting off new recruits. Professionals see gaining experience in the dynamic market as a smart career move, sweetened by a high standard of living. ‘Dubai is attractive because of the high growth. It pulls in Arabs who live elsewhere and who can see a smooth transition,’ says Sicre.

Managerial talentJordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian finance professionals are an established presence in the emirate. But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain are bec