Middle Eastern banking: Hopes and fears

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The Arab World is entering a period of financial and political change. Banks must face up to the new realities.

Speak to bank chiefs in Dubai and they often tell you the Arab Spring has had little impact on the oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. So, they say, there is no danger to their Middle Eastern business (which is probably focused, as most international banks are, on the GCC).

However, the Arab Spring has been so remarkable because it has already spread so quickly and so widely. Arab-language satellite television channels based in the Gulf helped communicate the message of the protests across the region.

Given that their domestic economies are usually tiny, Gulf-based business groups view the Middle East and North Africa as their home market. So Gulf investors are all exposed to the recent economic shocks in Egypt, Syria or Libya.

Meanwhile, fear of state breakdown in Saudi Arabia has already had a huge impact on business opportunities for banks in the region’s biggest economy. The Saudi government’s new spending programme has attracted a big inflow of deposits to local banks, as well as a newly invigorated project-finance pipeline, and increased mortgage-lending possibilities.

Violent confrontation in Bahrain, on the other hand, definitively ends the country’s claim to be the region’s main financial centre. It puts more downward pressure on Bahrain’s property market and causes even more solvency concerns for the island’s already struggling Islamic investment firms.

Even Israel has had large-scale protests against the cost of living, particularly housing. Israeli banks had increasingly focused on the mortgage market. Protest leaders in Israel have much in common with the well-educated, middle-class and secular youth who initially led protests in the Arab World. So the Arab Spring is an inspiration, even in Israel.

Arab countries share geographic proximity, a common language and a common majority religion. But the protests have been felt even more deeply because almost the entire Arab World – including the Gulf – shares certain similar economic fundamentals.

Almost all Arab countries have young populations, high youth unemployment, political regimes that stifle criticism, and business environments that disadvantage those without connections to the ruling party or family.

Few expect a revolution in the UAE or Saudi Arabia. But the prestige of rulers even in the Gulf has been weakened by poorly performing elements of their development plans: stock-exchange crashes, for example, or saturation in property markets in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. Perhaps partly in reaction, the UAE decided earlier this year to hold the second-ever election to its advisory national assembly.

Private companies face a lot more government pressure now, especially in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, to shun expatriates and tackle the country’s unemployment problems by hiring young nationals.

Banks usually find it easier to attract the best local talent, as their salaries are high and jobs are relatively prestigious in this sector. But investment bankers at international firms are likely to see less M&A activity abroad by sovereign wealth funds. Even expat bankers working within sovereign wealth funds are increasingly worried about local employee quotas.

In a report on Gulf banks in July, ratings agency Moody’s said the main structural challenges to asset quality were the Gulf’s undiversified economies, coupled with less-developed standards of corporate governance, underwriting, and related-party lending.

Abdul-Hameed Shoman, chairman of the pan-regional lender Arab Bank, similarly points to corporate governance and financial transparency, and to undeveloped legal frameworks for dealing with problem credits, as the main challenges facing the region’s banking sector.

But the past few years have seen, in some ways, an Arab Spring of the financial markets – and now in politics too. Rulers and business leaders (often the same people in this region) are facing increasing calls for more transparency and pluralism.

In the boom times, gaining political support was as easy as gaining loans. Listening to banks’ risk managers, let alone ordinary people, was unnecessary. Now, however, governments are being forced to discuss policies with their constituents. Likewise, companies struggling to pay debts have had to disclose more financials to renew loans.

Oil wealth and the global geostrategic interests make financial and political stability in this region more difficult. Equally, a strong tendency to deference in politics, as in financial markets, is not as easily overturned as one government or one company.

But the yearning for a more open political and financial culture has been stoked. The region’s chances of social and economic success might be greater now than ever before.