For this article, I have met up with Farhad Dabestani, a Professional Indemnity underwriter who moved out to Dubai a couple of years ago, to get his opinions on Insurance in the Middle East. If only I’d gone out to Dubai to meet him.
First things first, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 31, been working in Insurance since 2004, and graduated from the University of Kent with a BSc in Economics with Econometrics, and the University of Surrey with an MSc in Economics. I started my Insurance career working for Zurich in London as a PI Underwriter specialising in Lawyers PI. I now work as a PI Fac Reinsurance Underwriter for QBE European Operations (Dubai branch), specialising in Construction PI. I’m a petrolhead, and active squash player.
What was the recruiting process like for PI in Dubai?
I actually applied direct to the company with a speculative application. It was good timing for me as they were looking for someone with my skills and experience to relocate to Dubai. Within the Dubai market, generally recruitment is mixed with direct appointments and though recruitment consultants. Having links/a network in the market would be my best advice for getting a job in Dubai, the front line underwriters and brokers will know about positions first and would likely recommend people they know. Networking is important in the Middle East generally, which holds true for the Insurance industry generally.
Did the process differ because the job was in Dubai?
Yes. I was initially interviewed in London and offered a job from head office, but because the job was based within DIFC (Dubai International Finance Centre) which is a free zone in Dubai, I had to sign a DIFC employment contract. I also had to consider relocation costs, and temporary living costs when landing in Dubai. Having to live in a hotel in Dubai for a month or two wasn’t cheap, although my company were very accommodating. It’s best to make sure that you are signing up to the right package – so get some advice if you haven’t relocated abroad before.
Most companies in Dubai are not branches of a UK parent, they are autonomous subsidiaries so they tend to interview directly in Dubai, not in their head offices in the UK. So you may be required to fly out here for the interview.
How essential was networking in getting your job out there?
For me it wasn’t important overly important, but in general building your network is essential to getting out here. Recommendations go a long way in the Dubai market, the more people that you know, the more chance you have of finding out about new jobs fast and the more chance you have of securing something. It would be rare for someone to get a job in the Dubai market without the hiring manager making a few calls to see what the market thinks of the candidate. I’ve been asked about a fair few people in the market in the past 2 years.
Now that you’ve been out there for 2 years, is the job everything you were expecting or did you expect something completely different before you arrived?
I didn’t build up an expectation in my mind when I first started – I was just motivated to start a new challenge and get stuck in to a new market. I already knew Dubai from past holidays, so had some experience of the city.
How does the business culture differ from back home?
Business culture is very different from the London market, but it depends if you are working in the retail or wholesale Insurance markets. On the wholesale side, business is transacted mainly electronically, as your clients are based around the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region, so it’s almost impossible to operate the “face to face” business model London has. A typical days worth of submissions for me would come in from Reinsurance Brokers based in Lebanon/Greece/UAE/Oman/
On the retail side, you are most likely going to be looking after business in one territory – so you will not have the international exposure that the wholesale market offers. Client interaction is also not without challenge in the Middle East, our industry is still relatively new to the region and clients are generally not sophisticated buyers of Insurance.
In terms of the entertainment culture, business meetings are usually conducted over lunch/dinner instead of going for a drink, so make sure your appetite is healthy. The myth is: people put on a stone in weight in their first month in Dubai!
How much experience do you need to work in Dubai?
There is no hard and fast answer to this question, although I would recommend coming to Dubai (or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter) after you have some experience in an established market. I would suggest at least 3 years experience in the job you plan to do as a minimum. As a PI underwriter, construction is the main profession we underwrite in the Middle East so experience in construction PI prior to joining is preferred. Other lines of business and products may warrant similar specialist skills and knowledge depending on the market, so do your research and talk to people in the industry. For core lines of business and products like Property/Marine/Energy and personal lines or life, there is a good choice of professionals with experience in the region. For specialist and non-traditional lines the market is much smaller and experience is hard to find. Opportunities for these lines and products are where I would concentrate my efforts if I was trying to break into the Dubai market. There are junior positions also available in Dubai, from graduate level upwards, although unless the position is right and your immediate line manager is an industry expert or specialist I would be cautious about accepting any available role.
What have some of the key development areas been for you in the past 2 years ?
The main area of development has been to increase my understanding of the wider General Insurance business. For example: in London I concentrated only on underwriting commercial PI – mainly UK Solicitors, but in Dubai I underwrite enquiries for all professions on an international basis, and am responsible for the commercial Directors’ & Officers’ book.
I have also expanded my knowledge and understanding for Property, Engineering, General Liability, Medical Malpractice, and S&T – all of which I had no exposure to in the London market. As the teams are generally smaller in Dubai, I have also developed my understanding and experience within developing a product from the ground up. From wordings and rating, to marketing and distribution – you become responsible for the entire product from ground up.
What about your working hours? How many hours do you put in in an average week?
Normal working hours are 8.30am to 5.30pm, and we work Sunday to Thursday in Dubai. Working late depends on the product and time of year as per the UK market.
And what about pay? It must be great not paying any tax, but is that the only benefit of living in Dubai?
There are pros and cons to living in Dubai, yes it’s great not to have any deductions on your pay slip – but accomodation is expensive (think London prices), healthcare is fully private, and education is also expensive. It’s a cash culture here and everything costs money, so there’s definitely no free lunch.
I would say the main benefit to working here isn’t actually being tax free, it’s being able to take on work opportunities that you would not necessarily get in the west and challenging yourself in a newly developing and fast growing market. As the only PI underwriter for QBE on the ground in Dubai, I set my own budgets and manage a portfolio of business, it’s my baby! You get to be more autonomous, and you are able to take on much more responsibility early on in your career. This is great if you make it work and achieve success, but can also backfire if things don’t go to plan, as you will be held accountable for your own failure – there’s no one to hide behind!
Let’s talk about lifestyle.
Lifestyle and quality of living in Dubai is very good. The weather is always a hot topic (literally). We get 8 months of near perfect weather, between 18 and 28 degrees with sunshine all year round. We also get a very hot summer, which is 4 months of 40-50 degree heat day and night. Expats tend to travel during the summer, Europe and USA have good weather at that time of the year so you can work around it to some extent.
Dubai is a very outgoing, social and diverse city, people are open and from a range of different backgrounds. As most people are expats (only 15% locals) we’re all in the same boat so you can make friends quickly. Dubai itself offers plenty to do in your free time (including shop till you drop, or sit on the beach all weekend every weekend), and those with an outgoing personality will thrive here. All sports are catered for in Dubai, from rugby and football to cricket, tennis and squash. Watersports are also popular. Dubai is also well positioned to travel to Europe, Asia and the Far East. The Middle East itself is also worth descovering, you’re less than 4 hours away from the mountains in Beirut where you can ski and 3 hours from the ancient ruins in Petra in Jordan and the Dead Sea.
As a petrolhead though, I enjoy trackdays at both the Yas Marina F1 track, and Dubai Autodrome, and there are plenty of petrol related activities from quad biking or motorcross riding in the desert, to indoor go karting. And if you’re an adrenaline junky you can always give sky diving a go.
The Arabs are know for their luxurious lifestyle, are you living the Dubai dream or is Dubai just too expensive?
This all depends on your job, experience and package. A singleton in a junior role will not be rolling in a Ferrari and living in the penthouse of Burj Khalifa. However, if you are have some experience behind you (5-10yrs+), or are married and both working, you’ll be able to enjoy a very good quality of life.
Give me three benefits and 3 disadvantages of working in Insurance in Dubai.
Benefits: heightened responsibility and opportunities early in your career, wide exposure to General Insurance products, tax free.
Disadvantages: lack of specialist training, low conversion rates, unsophisticated market.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into Insurance in Dubai?
Learn the trade in an established market, and build up your CV before considering coming out to Dubai. Whilst there are a good number of experienced Insurance professionals in Dubai, it’s not a guarantee that your boss will be an industry/product expert, and picking up bad habits at the start of your career will not serve you well down the line.
Also, start to network with Insurance professionals in Dubai, most of the market uses Linkedin. Take a holiday to Dubai and arrange some meetings beforehand with a few Insurance/Reinsurance companies or brokers and see what opportunities hold for you!