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QNB green bond a sign of what's to come as Gulf embraces ESG

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QNB green bond a sign of what's to come as Gulf embraces ESG

Qatar National Bank (QPSC)'s $600 million green bond issuance is a sign of growing investor demand for these instruments and could presage further activity in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with growing interest and awareness within corporate boardrooms.

In the Gulf, sustainable development is increasingly important as governments focus on environmental, social and governance issues and attempt to implement strategic vision plans to diversify their economies, which include measures to boost renewable energy generation.

QNB's maiden green bond was the largest such issuance by a commercial GCC bank and only the second from a commercial lender in the region since 2017, when National Bank of Abu Dhabi, now First Abu Dhabi Bank PJSC, or FAB, issued its green bond.

A number of corporates in the United Arab Emirates have developed green bond frameworks but are yet to issue a green bond, said Stuart Ure, a partner at Clifford Chance, who has advised on a significant number of the region's green issuances, including FAB's green bond and Majid Al Futtaim Capital LLC's green sukuk.

Ure said he is aware of at least one other major regional bank working on a green framework. Volumes of inquiries from bank and nonbank clients around green bonds have increased, he said, and he is expecting a number of new green issuances over the next 12 months, including at least one bank.

Investor interest

Green bonds are debt instruments that finance or refinance environmentally friendly projects such as wind farms, solar power or energy efficiency improvements. September was a blockbuster month for these instruments in the wider Middle East. In addition to QNB, Saudi Electricity Co. issued a $1.3 billion dual tranche green sukuk — an Islamic debt instrument — while Egypt issued a $750 million sovereign green bond to fund a solar project.

QNB's issuance demonstrated the strong demand from investors for investment-grade emerging market green debt, and the bond "achieve[d] phenomenal orderbook diversification with over 98% of allocations outside the GCC and a negative new issue concession," said Mohamed Salama, regional head of corporate, commercial and institutional banking for East and North Africa at Standard Chartered, which acted as joint lead manager.

Overall green issuance volumes have remained strong in 2020, despite the market disruption from COVID-19, said Salama. "We initially saw a boom in social bond issuance, with proceeds going towards areas such as healthcare or other businesses support measures, but green bond issuance has picked up over the second half of the year."

"While the amount of ESG-only funds that focus on emerging markets are relatively small in number relative to developed markets, the portfolios and investor interest are rising rapidly — another important reason why regional issuers are taking note," he said.

There are "a limited number of banks in the region that can do a large benchmark size green bond that can be eligible for European developed market green bond funds," said Sergei Strigo, co-head of emerging markets fixed income at Amundi, which operates the world's largest emerging markets green bond fund.

While there is established interest from investors for institutional grade green bonds, interest in higher-yielding emerging markets green bonds — "where rating and size becomes less relevant" — is growing, Strigo said.

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Volumes of green bond issuance in the Middle East and North Africa have lagged behind other emerging markets in recent years, with China leading the way. But a confluence of political direction, international investor activity and measures taken by Gulf sovereign wealth funds is helping drive awareness around green bonds, green and sustainable financing and ESG more generally, said Darin Rovere, CEO at Sustainability Excellence, a consultancy based in Abu Dhabi.

The upgrade of Saudi Arabia to emerging market status by MSCI and FTSE means that many listed corporates face questions from international investors around ESG disclosures, while stock exchanges are also encouraging companies to improve ESG disclosures, said Rovere.

Several sovereign wealth funds, including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Kuwait Investment Authority, the Qatar Investment Authority and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, are signatories to the One Planet SWF Framework, which can raise awareness of the topic for local corporates — especially where these funds have large domestic portfolios with significant ownership of local companies, such as the in case of PIF, said Rovere.

Many GCC countries have national visions plans that are essentially sustainable development plans, said Rovere. "For corporates, if they want be lined up to the areas where there will be the greatest investment, then they want to show their strategic alignment to the national visions. And these [vision plans] are well aligned to ESG, sustainability, and sustainable development goals," he said.

In the past 12 months there has been increased awareness for ESG at a board level, said Rovere. "In years previous [our advisory sessions with corporates] were mostly limited to executive management, it kind of stopped there. Now, it's very much at the board level."

Not just fixed-income instruments

Banks are also granting loans linked to green or sustainability activities. Bahrain-based Al Baraka Banking Group BSC, which has signed up to the UN Principles of Responsible Banking, has a broad portfolio of sustainable lending.

"We are indirectly futureproofing our asset base by working with the customers who are more sustainability aligned," said Ali Adnan Ibrahim, global head of sustainability and social responsibility at Al Baraka.

The region has also recorded a number of green financing deals, including €100 million borrowed by Etihad Airways PJSC from FAB in December 2019 to develop a sustainable apartment complex for cabin crew. In 2018, Standard Chartered PLC arranged a sustainability-linked Islamic loan for DP World Group, the ports company, where pricing was linked to performance against ESG targets.

"There is a benefit [for a bank] in helping and incentivizing your clients to transition and become more green, which positions you as a lender in a way that futureproofs you, [given concerns] about regulators and climate risk, whereby stranded assets are a key concern," said Salama.