Euromoney Market Leaders: MEA rises to the challenge
Euromoney Market Leaders, a newly launched accreditation programme that complements existing Euromoney and Asiamoney rankings, examines how two regions are dealing with current headwinds and preparing for the future.
When Jerome Powell, chair of the US Federal Reserve, warned in late August of an unfortunate cost from rising US interest rates, Middle Eastern banks were among the first to find out what the Federal Reserve chairman meant.
Immediate gyrations in the dollar, bond markets and oil prices reminded bankers from Cairo to Muscat of the intense headwinds the region faces from all directions.
To the west, the highest inflation in 40 years has the Fed embarking on the most aggressive tightening cycle since the early 1990s. To the east, China’s blanket ‘zero Covid’ lockdowns are reducing demand for oil. From the north, the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing one of the worst food crises in generations and exacerbating inflation pressures.
Yet amid the turmoil, there are a variety of important ways in which the Middle East is meeting the challenges ahead. This is also true in Africa, where banks are stepping up efforts to increase financial inclusion and job creation.
Take sustainability. Gulf Cooperation Council countries had long lagged in investments adhering to environmental, social and governance principles. The region is, after all, highly reliant on fossil fuel exports. Today, ESG is a region-wide focus, a powerful legacy of the pandemic era.
A May 2022 report by PwC found that “ESG imperatives are now front and centre for Middle East businesses and governments alike.” Priorities, PwC says, include efforts to increase climate-change mitigation; diversity and equality; collaboration between governments; and the private sector taking the lead in innovation and job creation.
In the MEA region, the urgency around climate change could not be less remote – and the pathway towards a green future is one of the greatest opportunities in our time
None of this is news to Shargiil Bashir, chief sustainability officer at First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB). FAB is in the vanguard of banks getting serious about screening investment products and loan portfolios for climate impacts and broader sustainability.
“In the MEA region, the urgency around climate change could not be less remote – and the pathway towards a green future is one of the greatest opportunities in our time,” Bashir tells Euromoney. “The UAE, for example, is committed to shaping the global climate agenda and is working to turn the world’s greatest existential challenge into immense possibilities to benefit both people and planet alike.”
FAB ranks highly in the Market Leaders rankings for ESG in the region, along with fellow UAE institution Emirates NBD. Others earning top ESG rankings include Bahrain’s Ahli United Bank, Gulf International Bank and National Bank of Bahrain and Egypt’s Commercial International Bank and National Bank of Egypt.
In November, Egypt will host the COP27 climate conference. That is catalyzing banks to focus even more on sustainable finance. Priorities include promoting – and winning mandates for – green bonds and demanding greater carbon footprint accountability from clients.
The Middle East region, says Oliver Kettlewell, head of fixed income and global portfolios at Mashreq Capital, is bracing for “more rate hikes to come” from the Fed. In general, he says, “the Fed will win in terms of interest-rate differentials – and that could mean a stronger dollar for longer.”
Within the region, inflation continues to surge, says Carla Slim, Middle East and north Africa (MENA) economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
“Inflation is yet to peak in MENA,” notes Slim. “While the exogenous shocks of food and transport inflation are set to abate at the margin in coming months, the post-Covid recovery in housing is yet to be fully reflected in consumer price index baskets across several regional markets.”
That means: “The question keeps coming back to the appropriateness of the GCC pegs to the dollar given the current circumstances,” Slim adds.
And yet the UAE has been at the centre of a regional IPO boom. This year, IPOs in the Middle East have been outpacing Europe for only the second time since the 2008 global financial crisis.
According to EY MENA, investors putting oil-fueled cash to work across the region has driven a 500% year-on-year jump in the number of companies listing in the first half of 2022.
The MENA region’s “IPO activity continues to defy global trends and remains a bright spot in a challenging market,” says Brad Watson, head of EY MENA’s strategy team.
Markets are indeed bracing for a rocky few months ahead. Risks from intensifying Fed tightening, global supply-chain troubles and a sharp Chinese slowdown have markets positioning for turbulence to come. However, Watson notes: “globally, MENA IPO activity continues to defy global trends and remains a bright spot in a challenging market.”
Fully 40% of Kuwaiti investment banks are ranked market leaders, including Kamco Invest, Markaz and NBK Capital. Among Kuwait’s ‘highly regarded’ banks are Al Ahli Bank of Kuwait/Ahli Capital and Gulf Bank.
The socioeconomic benefits would be immense if countries across the Middle East and North Africa fully digitalized their economies
Speaking to bankers in the region, it is clear that the digital space is increasingly where banks are focusing their attention. Indeed, much of the digital transformation in the region is being led by banks, notes Ana Paula Cusolito, senior World Bank economist specializing in digital adoption dynamics.
“The socioeconomic benefits would be immense if countries across the Middle East and North Africa fully digitalized their economies,” she says.
Cusolito notes that increased MENA digitalization could raise GDP per capita regionally by more than 40%. It could increase manufacturing-sector employment by 7% and tourist arrivals by 70%, creating new jobs.
Akef El Maghraby agrees. As vice-chairman of Banque Misr, El Maghraby is working to create Egypt’s first fully digital bank. In 2020, the bank established Misr Digital Innovation (MDI) to provide innovative solutions to support entrepreneurs and disrupt an economy in urgent need of increased productivity and efficiency.
As El Maghraby sees it, MDI “is an essential part of the main efforts confirming Egypt’s role as a regional centre for startups.”
Collaborating with startups, he adds, “helps change the future of finance and business in Egypt and solidifies our commitment to digital transformation and developing the local market.”
Not surprisingly, Banque Misr is ranked among Egypt’s digital market leaders along with ABK-Egypt, Commercial International Bank and QNB Alahli.
And yet among Middle East nations with the highest percentage of top-ranked digital banks, Egypt is ranked third with 36.4%. Saudi Arabia is ranked number one with 66.7%, denoting a highly developed digital banking ecosystem relative to its neighbours.
Saudi banks that do well in the rankings include Al Rajhi Bank, Alinma Bank, Riyad Bank and the Saudi British Bank, followed in the highly regarded category by Arab National Bank and Saudi National Bank.
Bahrain has 57.1% of its digital banks ranked as market leaders. They include Ahli United Bank, Al Salam, Bank ABC and National Bank of Bahrain.
Middle East fintechs
Euromoney’s research shows strong collaboration between banks and fintech startups in the Middle East, especially for payment solutions such as digital wallets and international fund transfers.
Saudi regulators are supporting the creation of investment products and crowdfunding platforms to increase the quantity of personal banking offerings. The Saudi central bank is putting the finishing touches on open-banking protocols. This would relieve local banks of the need to use subsidiaries abroad to offer such services.
In July, Alinma Bank entered a strategic partnership with Foodics, the top cloud-based technology and payments platform for restaurants in the MENA region. The partnership is particularly aimed at small business owners and micro-businesses in the kingdom.
The plan, says Saleh Alzumaie, senior vice-president at Alinma, is to strengthen support in this vital sector.
In Qatar, Commercial Bank of Qatar ranks among the market leaders.
“Digital banking is no longer a novelty in the industry,” says Joseph Abraham, the bank’s group chief executive. “It is core to banking and many other industries, and all these ecosystems will interact in the future.”
Efforts to diversify economies away from resources and the state sector are increasing the importance of supporting small and medium-sized enterprises.
Jordan has the highest percentage of institutions ranked market leaders in this sector, with 30% of banks ranked, including Arab Bank, Capital Bank Jordan and Jordan Ahli Bank, followed by highly regarded Bank ABC Jordan, Bank Al Etihad, Bank of Jordan and the Housing Bank for Trade and Finance.
In January, Arab Bank’s small and medium-sized enterprise unit head, Suleiman Abu khader, launched the Arabi SME digital platform. Business owners can open accounts and apply for loans online. The goal, he says, is to offer “the best banking solutions and services for their pivotal role in creating job opportunities and contributing to economic growth.”
In Euromoney’s corporate social responsibility rankings, Kuwait boasts the highest percentage of market leader intuitions with 54.5%, including Ahli United Bank Kuwait, Boubyan Bank, Gulf Bank, Kuwait Finance House, Kuwait International Bank and National Bank of Kuwait. Qatar has the second-highest concentration of market leaders at 50%, including Commercial Bank of Qatar, Doha Bank and Qatar National Bank.
Jordan has the third-highest percentage of market leaders – 23.1% – including Arab Bank, Jordan Ahli Bank, and The Housing Bank for Trade and Finance. It boasts a robust stable of highly regarded banks, including Bank Al Etihad, Bank of Jordan, Citibank Jordan, Jordan Islamic Bank and Jordan Kuwait Bank.
A competitive CSR and sustainability profile is now a vital metric for shareholders and stakeholders such as regulators, communities and clients.
The same goes for the diversity and inclusion rankings as the Middle East works to spread the benefits of rapid GDP growth. Kuwait tops the diversity and inclusion tables, with Ahli United Bank Kuwait, Al Ahli Bank of Kuwait, Boubyan Bank and Burgan Bank all doing well.
Africa is also feeling the impact of Powell’s warning. As capital flows away from emerging nations and frontier economies toward dollar assets, the continent is experiencing more than its fair share of control challenges. The slowest Chinese growth in 30 years and global inflation shocks are further adding to the disorientation.
Take Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy; analyst Jermaine Leonard at Fitch Ratings notes that “persistently high inflation is contributing to Nigeria’s modest growth rates and weighing on external liquidity by discouraging financial account inflows.”
Fitch sees Nigeria growing 3.1%, at best, in 2022.
Leonard says: “A significant strengthening of macroeconomic performance appears unlikely in the near term”, even when the economy enjoys “supportive effects” from high oil prices.
Fitch’s worries about inflation in Nigeria and beyond are shared by Herbert Wigwe, managing director at Access Bank. Nigeria’s biggest lender by assets is ranked across market leader categories from corporate banking and CSR to digital solutions and SMEs.
Access Bank’s economic intelligence unit forecasts inflation in the country to hit 18.5% in the short term as food costs surge and there is increased downward pressure on the Nigerian currency, the naira.
Wigwe has changed the bank’s corporate structure to fuel expansion and argues that Access could be one of the top five banks on the continent by 2027.
[R&D budgets] could’ve never ever competed with what nature has enforced upon us to really think and innovate around
Joining Access Bank among Nigeria’s market leaders are Guaranty Trust Bank, Stanbic IBTC and United Bank for Africa. Among Nigeria’s highly regarded are Fidelity Bank, First Bank of Nigeria, Union Bank of Nigeria and Zenith Bank.
Chapel Hill Denham and Stanbic IBTC Capital are Nigeria’s investment bank market leaders, followed by Rand Merchant Bank in the highly regarded category and DLM Capital Group, Meristem Securities and Quantum Zenith Capital among ‘notable’ institutions.
Zambia has had an eventful year that has seen the government having to negotiate a loan from the IMF.
“Having come out of a volatile FX and interest-rate environment,” says Chitemwa Kapaya, corporate bank officer at Stanbic, “corporates maintained a conservative stance towards expansion and increased investment. And we have seen a shift in that sentiment, with increased investor confidence that has come with more stable FX and a reduction in interest rates all supported by strides made around negotiating and now securing the $1.3 billion IMF programme.”
Kapaya notes that: “The outlook on Zambia from a corporate lending space is very positive. We have seen clients start to consider expansions again with notable announcements by some of the large corporates.”
The Covid era prompted African banks to raise their CSR offerings. In Ghana, Ecobank has set up partnerships in the 33 sub-Saharan nations in which it operates. In April, for example, Elisa Desbordes-Cissé, chief operating officer of the Ecobank Foundation, launched a malaria-eradication initiative in Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Uganda.
Not surprisingly, Ecobank is one of Ghana’s two market leaders in CSR, the other being GCB Bank. Ghana has a large number of highly regarded banks in this space: Absa Bank, Access Bank, Cal Bank, Fidelity Bank and United Bank for Africa.
Digitalization is also gaining momentum across Africa, although the region started from a lower base than most of the Middle Eastern nations.
“We had to adapt,” says Terence Sibiya, managing director at South Africa’s Nedbank, which ranks among the market leaders.
Although Nedbank and peers have increased research and development budgets in recent years, he says, “those could’ve never ever competed with what nature has enforced upon us to really think and innovate around.”
Euromoney research determined the market leaders across Africa: in Kenya, Equity Bank, NCBA Bank, and Standard Chartered; Ghana, Ecobank and Zenith Bank; Mauritius, Mauritius Commercial Bank and Standard Bank; South Africa, Absa Bank and Nedbank; Tanzania, CRDB Bank and NMB Bank; Morocco, Attijariwafa Bank; Mozambique, Millennium bim; and in Zambia, Stanbic Bank.
This year’s Euromoney Market Leaders rankings reflect the region’s economies as they evolve, diversify and interact with a fast-changing financial world – and they hint at a more vibrant future ahead.
“This is about much more than finance,” concludes FAB’s Bashir. “It’s about combining multiple solutions, embracing emerging technology, adopting evolving business models and innovating in everything that we do to create a more sustainable and vibrant future for all.”
Euromoney Market Leaders is a new, comprehensive country-level ranking system. Banks are ranked according to eight categories: investment banking; corporate banking; small and medium-sized enterprise banking; ESG; Islamic banking; digital solutions; corporate and social responsibility; and diversity and inclusion.
Conclusions are based on bank initiatives, case studies, products, specific projects, transaction breadth, individual policies and numerical data and targets. Relevant accreditation such as awards, rankings and ratings is also taken into account. We also look for evidence of creativity, innovation and the importance of market impact based on a universe of quantitative metrics.