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MENA news through Dec. 20

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MENA news through Dec. 20

* Fitch Ratings said its 2018 outlook for sovereign ratings in the Middle East and North Africa is negative, driven by heightened geopolitical risks in the Gulf Cooperation Council and the inability of some oil exporters to adjust their budgets to the new oil price reality.

MIDDLE EAST

* Saudi Arabia will increase government spending to a record 978 billion Saudi Arabian riyals in 2018, up from 890 billion riyals in the original 2017 budget and actual spending of 926 billion riyals in the year. The 2018 budget deficit is expected to ease at 195 billion riyals, or 7.3% of GDP, against an actual 230 billion riyals in 2017.

* SABB Takaful Co.'s board of directors decided to dismiss CEO Stephen Cosgrove and appointed Hussam Malaekah acting CEO, effective Dec. 14.

* Malath Cooperative Insurance and Reinsurance Co. accepted the resignation of CEO Nasser al-Bunni, effective from Jan. 1, 2018, and named Fawaz al-Hijji as his successor.

* Takaful Emarat - Insurance (PSC) will acquire Al Hilal Takaful PSC from Al Hilal Bank PJSC in an all-cash transaction that will create the largest Islamic insurance group in the United Arab Emirates based on 2016 gross written contributions. The deal is set to complete in the first quarter of 2018.

* Emirates NBD Bank PJSC sold its 7.56% stake in Bank of Beirut SAL for just under $29.3 million, marking the Emirati bank's exit from the Lebanese market, The Daily Star reported.

* The Dubai Financial Market launched regulated short-selling as part of efforts to enhance market liquidity.

* The Qatar Central Bank raised its repo rate to 2.50% from 2.25%, while the Central Bank of Jordan increased the interest rates on its various monetary policy instruments by 25 basis points.

* The Qatar Central Bank launched a legal investigation into alleged attempts by other countries to harm the Qatari economy by manipulating its currency, securities and derivatives markets.

* Qatar General Insurance & Reinsurance Co. QPSC said it will exit the Dubai insurance market.

* National Bank of Kuwait SAKP CEO Isam al-Sager told Bloomberg News that the lender has received "required approvals" to launch two more branches in Saudi Arabia by the end of 2018, while Egyptian unit National Bank of Kuwait - Egypt (SAE) is planning to increase its branch count to 60 by 2020 from 43. George Richani, CEO of National Bank of Kuwait's international banking group, said in a separate interview that the bank is also considering establishing branches in India and Germany.

* Kuwait's Ministry of Finance does not recognize the bitcoin and, along with the country's central bank, prohibits Kuwaiti financial firms from trading using the virtual currency, the Arab Times reported. The Central Bank of Oman, meanwhile, warned the public against dealing with cryptocurrencies, as there are no policies or guidelines to regulate them, the Times of Oman reported.

* Oman ORIX Leasing Co. SAOG and National Finance Co. SAOG received final approval from the Central Bank of Oman for their proposed merger.

* Ahli United Bank BSC shareholders approved the establishment of a Bahraini retail banking subsidiary as part of the group's plans to reorganize its legal and corporate structure in the country.

* Arab Bank Group Chairman Sabih al-Masri has been released by authorities after being detained in Saudi Arabia for questioning following a business trip to the country, an insider told Bloomberg News.

* The IMF said Iran's credit institutions and banks need urgent restructuring and recapitalization, noting that the country's economy is recovering but faces near-term challenges such as rising financial vulnerabilities and external uncertainty.

* The Iranian government approved the sale of its remaining shares in Asia Insurance Co., Alborz Insurance Co. and Dana Insurance Co., the Financial Tribune wrote. Meanwhile, Bank Mellat (PJSC) plans to divest its 20% stake in Asia Insurance Co. as part of the lender's plans to get rid of excess assets, the Financial Tribune reported.

* Mizrahi Tefahot Bank Ltd. raised 675 million Israeli shekels in a contingent convertible bond offering to institutional investors, Reuters reported.

* Sirius International Insurance Group Ltd. received approval from the Israeli antitrust commissioner for its acquisition of Delek Group Ltd.'s remaining 47% stake in Phoenix Holdings Ltd.

* Bank Hapoalim BM named Gabriel Hamani CEO of unit BHI USA. Hamani replaces Yair Talmor, who has been named chairman of BHI USA Advisory Group.

NORTH AFRICA

* Egypt's Financial Regulatory Authority warned investors regarding the risks of dealing in cryptocurrencies, noting that the regulator "does not permit any of these currencies or even dealing in products related to them," Daily News Egypt wrote, citing Chairperson Mohamed Omran.

* The IMF's Executive Board completed the second review of under the $12 billion, three-year extended fund facility arrangement for Egypt, allowing authorities to draw the equivalent of about $2.03 billion. This brings total disbursements to approximately $6.08 billion.

* Morocco's central bank maintained its key rate at 2.25%.

* Libya's eastern-based parliament approved Mohamed Abdelsalam al-Shukri as the new governor of the central bank based in Tobruk, Reuters reported. The central bank based in Tripoli, where the internationally recognized Libyan government is based, rejected the move by the eastern-based parliament.

* The Tunisian banking sector needs ambitious reforms, according to S&P Global Ratings. The rating agency said it views the sector as a significant source of contingent liabilities for the country's government and a weakness for its economy.

* Banque de l'Habitat increased its capital to 238 million Tunisian dinars from 170 million dinars following the issue of 6.8 million new shares, IlBoursa wrote.

* Banque Attijari de Tunisie SA named Kamel Habbachi deputy CEO, according to IlBoursa.

S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Ratings are owned by S&P Global Inc.

Henni Abdelghani and Sophie Davies contributed to this report.