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Gulf banks thrive despite downturn

A consolidation wave has broken over the Arab banks. In Bahrain, Gulf International Bank and Saudi International have created a new giant. In Saudi Arabia, Saudi American Bank and United Saudi Bank merged. Years of low oil prices and weak economies are the spur, though banks are still making profits. Commentary by Andrew Beikos and Elena Antoniou

Prince Al-Waleed:
investor in Saudi banks

controls largest Lebanese

newly-crowned king

Reflecting the oil wealth of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, the GCC banks, as in previous years, continue to dominate the top 100 Arab banks. While the GCC was confronted with a severe economic downturn last year due to collapsing oil prices and ripple effects from the Asian and Russian financial crises, the region witnessed a number of positive developments.

In line with the worldwide banking consolidation, two Saudi Arabian banks, the 30% Citibank-owned Saudi American Bank, which appears sixth among Arab banks ranked by total capital, and United Saudi Bank (11), controlled by the high profile Saudi investor Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, announced a merger in early 1999 which was completed in July.

The new entity, which retains Samba's name and operates under a management contract with Citibank, will rank among the top three banks in the Arab world by total capital and be a force to reckon with, particularly as the GCC opens up its market in the next several years.

It came as a surprise when National Commercial Bank, the largest capitalized bank in the Arab world, made the headlines with the announcement in May that majority owner Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz (a former BCCI director), was forced to sell a large stake to the government-controlled Public Investment Fund (PIF).