NEW YORK -- Saudi Arabia may not be a dream assignment, but a dearth of banking jobs in the United States can increase the appeal of even the war-torn Middle East.
Jonathan Wren International, a London-based recruiter, says it has been pleasantly surprised by initial attempts to fill a growing number of slots at Saudi banks. A few weeks ago, the firm ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal seeking U.S. bankers with a range of experience, including corporate marketing and credit management.
"We received 20 to 25 responses in the first two days," said Brian Jarvis, executive consultant at Jonathan Wren. "That's considered good for a foreign post. We were very surprised at the promptness."
Frank Paine, one of those who responded to the ad, said he had been looking for a job for several months.
"A lot depends on what happens with the war and what they are offering, but I'm certainly thinking about it," said Mr. Paine, whose specialty is ship financing and who previously worked for a Saudi banking company in New York. Mr. Paine said he had not been looking to relocate -- at least not to Saudi Arabia. "But when you need work, you contemplate things that you wouldn't normally consider," he said.
Recruiting drives by Saudi banks are clearly on the rise. The recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International reported that the number openings at Saudi banks had doubled since the gulf war started, said Gregory Coleman, vice president and partner.
Disrupted by the war, Saudi banks are looking to fill a variety of positions. Some were vacated by expatriate bankers who fled the hostilities and are not expected to return.
Precise numbers are not readily available, but as many as half of the employees at some Saudi banks are foreigners, primarily from nearby countries.
Only about 30 Americans work at Saudi banks, in management positions, according to banking analysts there. But the dismal U.S. job market makes it a good time to go courting.
"Given the state of the New York market, there's a lot of good-quality bankers chasing too few jobs," Mr. Jarvis said. "The ad was aimed specifically at the U.S."
In addition to filling vacant posts, Saudi banks are hoping to create new positions for experienced corporate bankers. The Saudis anticipate that a victory for allied forces will bring great financing opportunities as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia rebuild their infrastructures.
"Once things have settled down, there's a huge potential for big contracts from U.S. companies to rebuild Kuwait," Mr. Jarvis said. "Saudi banks are principally looking at North America because of the availability of corporate bankers with experience dealing with large multinational corporations."
Both Jonathan Wren and Korn/Ferry emphasize that their Saudi clients will not require new employees to begin work until the war is over.
Not all recruiters expect smooth sailing. "It's a tough recruiting assignment," said Mr. Coleman of Korn/Ferry.
Pay and fringe benefits are big draws. Salaries have tended to be comparable to those in the United States, but the income is nearly tax-free. To attract expatriates, the Saudi banks might bolster salaries, recruiters say.
Bonuses, rent-free furnished apartments, cars, free schooling for children and paid family holidays to the United States are common enticements. With such extras, expatriates often can sock away two-thirds of their gross salary in savings, recruiters said.
There are career risks as well as personal-safety concerns. Middle East banking experts say that reconstruction work might not offset lost business at Saudi banks. Some banks in the gulf region may not survive, they warn.