This article originally appeared in a Dubai alt-weekly, The Buzz, in 2006. I was Group Editor at the time, charged with relaunching the title and hiring new staff. The project was a good one, but the company was a mess (not atypical of Dubai publishing). I left after the boss failed to pay the wages three months running. The Filipino receptionist, on $200 per month, and also unpaid, walked out and took the office printer home with her.
Dubai has earned a reputation as a city of opportunity; a place where a humble plumber can become a CEO. But how far are job hunters prepared to go to advance their career? We placed a job ad in an effort to find out. Wanted: lion tamer’s assistant.
It is an unremarkable Wednesday in August, not the busiest day of the year, but far from quiet. Our job ad is in black & white and, at 5cm by 12cm, is the smallest on the page. It is one of 282 vacancies in the appointments section of that day’s Gulf News and one of 308 in Khaleej Times. There are ads for radio station managers, Russian speaking property consultants, wound care midwifes, banquet managers and an antimoney laundering officer. Only the headline lifts it from the page: Lion Tamer’s Assistant
The copy reads: ‘Dubai’s newly formed circus requires an assistant to its experienced tamer of man-eating lions. Applicants need not have previous experience in the field, but a liking for cats is essential and a background in circus life preferred. The right candidate will have meticulous personal hygiene, a strong grip and a calming nature.
‘The position will be based in Dubai but there may be an opportunity for foreign travel. Candidates must be prepared to work evenings and weekends, and to deputise for chief tamer when required.’
Applicants are invited to send their CV and covering letter to a Mr B Smart. An email address is given, no phone number.
By the end of the first day there are six responses, five more on day two and a total of 16 by the close of the week. Three of the responses are from women. The oldest applicant is 42, the youngest is 21. Only one is remotely qualified to do the job.
So who are these people, what possessed them to apply? And what does this say about the frenetic nature of the Dubai jobs market?
“I hate the usual boring, run-of-the-mill jobs. I crave excitement,” says Louise Saul, the first to apply, by way of an explanation. The 36-year-old Briton had just left a sales position at a real estate firm and was open to something new. A qualified nail technician, she is writing a novel in her spare time. She happily admits she has no experience in this field and, though she has had plenty of cats, none as big as a lion.
“I was sceptical about the ad; I told my friends it must be a wind-up. But you never see anything different, particularly in Gulf News, so it’s worth a try.” She was disillusioned with her last job. She had been told it would be chasing sales leads, the reality was cold-calling. She said there was still work to be had in real estate but the market had softened: “But you have to do what you have to do. It is a sentiment that crops up throughout the interviews: an interesting job would be ideal, but, right now, any job would be good.
Custel Dolatre arrived in Dubai in July from the Philippines. An IT systems engineer, he says his salary back home wasn’t enough to keep his family. His mother had asked him if would chance his luck in Dubai. He said his ideal job would be in IT but that he’d be happy to work in a coffee shop for now.
He said the lion tamer job appealed because he is an animal lover. He had also applied for a job seeking an animal handler, and would consider looking after people’s pets.
Custel’s compatriot, Arlie Ladimo has been here five months and remains on a visit visa. He has had some part time work but no luck with a full time position. A former assistant store manager, he said he applies for an average of 50 jobs a week; most never receive a reply.
“My uncle works here in Dubai, and my parents say they want to come. They’re in Jeddah. They don’t like it there. Dubai is better; here you can be free. I go to the beach after sending off my CVs.”
For Custel, Arlie and others, job hunting is a numbers game. Send enough CVs, covering letter or not, and hopefully one might stick. Emelyn Vibar, a hotel receptionist and another Filipino, said she usually applies for 10 jobs a week, but she couldn’t recall what this weeks’ jobs might have been. She certainly had no idea why she would be suitable for a lion tamer’s position.
In the same vein, Ayman Kamel, an Egyptian web designer living in Ras Al Khaimah, couldn’t even recall sending his CV (he’d sent it twice, on consecutive days). He said he had no interest in being lion tamer but hoped someone would remember his CV. Sending CVs is as much a part of daily life as washing and shaving.
Benjamin Masete, a qualified printer from Kenya, said his weekly average runs into three figures. He has been here three years and says job hunting is getting harder: “There’s not so much opportunity. You don’t see so many jobs and having to keep changing your visa is expensive.
Salaries are a problem; some people are prepared to work for less and you can’t live on 2,500 dirhams a month.” Benjamin, who claimed to have touched a lion in Nairobi two years ago, said the lion tamer’s job would have been perfect. “It doesn’t matter what job you do as long as it makes you happy, but I would have loved this job because it would make me an extraordinary person. I would be so proud to say ‘I am a lion tamer’. People would want to listen to me.”
Ali Abbas was the youngest and perhaps the most cocksure of the applicants. He said he kept dogs and pigeons and was sure lions would be no different. “With everything, you require time. Okay, I’m not qualified, so if you don’t think I’m suitable you can reject me.”
Rejection is something he wears lightly.
Not every applicant was so random; a few were interested in the merits of the job. Anas Khan, a middle manager from Mumbai, reckoned lion taming could lead to other things. The trick for job hunters was to think beyond the advertised vacancy.
“The Indian jobs market is exploding right now. It’s the sort of place where you can jump across sectors, more so than Dubai. But if you get it right in Dubai this is an excellent place to be. It’s not a challenging place to work.”
He said job hunters had to chance their luck. “Some job ads are so specific. They want four years experience in this, three years in that. It is absolutely ridiculous. If you only applied for jobs in which you had perfect experience you’d only do two a month. You take your chances.”
His main irritant was that the Dubai jobs market was skewed. He said it works on three principles: nationality, presentability and colour of skin.
“There are a lot of people here who are overqualified and in the wrong job, and there are those who are underqualified and in the wrong job. The difference is the lucky ones have one of the three things going for them.”
Ashwin D’Silva, a customer service supervisor from Mumbai, and one of the first to apply, said few employers look beyond the CV, and fewer still checked the facts. He was preparing to leave for India, having applied for 300 jobs in his three months stay. He promised to return: “Next time I’ll be prepared.”
Shakir Ali, a business development executive, said he was feeling insecure in his current position (visa problems, mostly) and, while it had been great for market knowledge, this was an opportunity to strike out on his own. But why lion taming?
“It’s not a bad position…assistant is good. Gradually, gradually I will cement my position. I can do better. I have a feel for the customer, and when the lion tamer leaves, maybe I get promoted.”
This sunny optimism is what is required in all job applicants. Who really applies for any job expecting the worst? Like Anas Khan suggests, should we only apply for jobs where our qualifications match exactly? Is there no role for chance?
Nadine Abou Atme, a 28-yearold Lebanese looking for work in sales & marketing, said Dubai resembles New York in the 1950s, a boom town with plenty of opportunity. What’s not to be optimistic about?
“I thought this ad would be one of two things. Either it’s for real, or it’s market research company looking for information. I thought it would be a lark to apply. If it was a real job it would have been a dream.”
Take your pick of the best-guestimates, Dubai is only going to get bigger and busier. Twenty million by 2020, some say. Whatever the figure, it remains the most exciting work environment in the region.
“The city is at an interesting point,” says Bernie Luby, communications manager at recruitment consultant Clarendon Parker Middle East. “It isn’t as mature as, say, the US or UK, but it is by far the most sophisticated in the Middle East.”
Her view is that expat recruitment is dying; except for certain specialist or senior roles most vacancies can be filled by residents of Dubai. “The market is not saturated but it is maturing,” she explains.
“Employers want people with experience, qualifications or at least relevant links to the job.
Many Western expats have come here thinking ‘easy life, good money, sun shine’, and they’ve been quite disappointed.”
The city’s skills base is only going to increase. Tahir Basraa, a Pakistani and the oldest applicant, recently arrived from Saudi Arabia. He is a qualified vet and brings a wealth of experience to the UAE economy. In the short term he may have to trade down rather than up.
Wissam Syriany, a 25-year-old freelance writer and full-time waiter, was a recent arrival from Lebanon, forced from his home in Beirut. He accepted he may have to take what work he is offered, but is upbeat about his future prospects.
“The good thing about Dubai is you can settle here, you can free your mind from all the troubles of the region. There are many cultures here, lots of companies, lots of competition. That’s good. It creates a market with a variety of jobs. It is unique in the region.”
Luby at Clarendon Parker says Dubai has got harder over the last three years and will continue to do so. For some, taking a lesser job today is needed to advance tomorrow. She also reckons hiring on the grounds of nepotism, nationality and skin colour is fading.
“International companies have clear HR audits. They have to justify their budgets. There are people in Dubai with the right skills for the job, why risk nepotism?”
You remember there was one applicant who would have been perfect for the job? We chose the lion tamer believing it would be too obscure to attract qualified candidates, that only chancers would apply. We were wrong.
Like Luby says, Dubai is now big enough to provide for most recruitment needs.
Eric Peschler is part French, part South African and has been in the UAE for seven months. He was formerly general manager of one of South Africa’s biggest animal quarantine stations. He has dealt with big cats on a daily basis – lions, leopards, cheetahs, tigers.
His job includes some basic training for certain species of cat.
“I thought there was something strange about the ad,” he laughs, when we explain the ruse. “I was curious. I know everyone connected with big cats in the UAE, so I thought this must be some new project I’d never heard of.”
And that may be Dubai in a snapshot: word of mouth will usually find the best candidates, the masses will continue to see the advertised jobs as fair game.