GUEST COMMENT: Financial institutions in Bahrain are still paralysed with fear

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Robert-Moxan

A year on from the 'Arab Spring' uprising in Bahrain and the financial sector in the kingdom is still paralysed by uncertainty and fear.

After being the pre-eminent financial centre in the Gulf for so long, Bahrain has long been losing ground to Dubai , which now serves as the regional headquarters for the majority of international financial institutions, while its traditional strength (asset management) is now under threat from an increasingly ambitious Qatar .

While the term 'Arab Spring' is invariably associated with rebirth in the region, the fact remains that this year looks like being another case of broken promises in the Bahraini financial sector.

So far, rather than growth, Bahrain has been in danger of losing what it currently has. Last week's announcement from BNP Paribas that it would continue its HQ in the kingdom was a rare piece of good news. The French bank has already moved some employees to Dubai , while Crédit Agricole will complete its move to the emirate by June this year.

Generally, a lot of expatriate workers have re-considered their position in Bahrain since this time last year, which could yet prove damaging.

On a more positive note, Bahrain is less reliant on an expatriate workforce than other Gulf states. Since the early 2000s, when money came flooding into the region, financial institutions in Bahrain looked to hire more locals; established MBAs and those with even five minutes experience in Western markets. Even now, the government is rolling out new training programmes for Bahrainis, with finance and accounting a key area of focus.

Not that qualified Bahrainis necessarily feel the need to stick around; many move to the UAE, KSA, or in some case London or New York . Those who take the latter route rarely return because of the greater rewards on offer in Western markets.

Currently, Bahrain 's financial sector is like a rabbit on the motorway, staring at the headlights of the 16-ton lorry careering towards it, but unable to move. On the one hand, its international reputation has taken a hammering because of the events over the last year. On the other, a broader downturn in the sector has meant that many of the regional institutions are in limbo.

Redundancies are more commonplace, and they generally hit expats harder, which means more people are leaving the kingdom. There's also the fact that many business models are currently unclear, which means few institutions have a clear understanding of what their hiring needs will be going forward.

My predictions are that some of the larger regional institutions will continue to restructure, while the more experienced talent will decide it's better to go it alone, so expect a number of boutiques popping up in the next couple of years.

We're now 12 months down the line since the trouble started in Bahrain, but unfortunately the financial sector is still firmly in the middle of a storm.

Robert Moxon works as an advisor at Bahrain-based fund-raising firm Worldlinks Advisors and also works with Legacy Finance, a firm specialising in private equity for emerging markets. He is a banking veteran, having previously worked for Citibank, Midland Montague Treasury and British Petroleum over the last 30 years. He moved to the Middle East in 1994 to start up the investments for BMB Investment Bank in Bahrain.

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