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MENA news through Dec. 21

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MENA news through Dec. 21

MIDDLE EAST

* While the central banks of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait raised interest rates immediately after the U.S. Federal Reserve raised its own rates, the Central Bank of Oman became the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council to buck the trend, Reuters reported. The central bank's executive president, Hamood Sangour al-Zadjali, said the regulator does not intend to "blindly" follow the Fed despite the Omani rial's peg to the U.S. dollar.

* The Oman Investment Fund, Oman International Development and Investment Co., and Arab Bank (Switzerland), through their recently established investment banking platform Ubhar Capital SAOC, will acquire Oman Arab Bank's investment management group business. Ubhar Capital will commence business operations in January 2017.

* Masraf Al Rayan (Q.S.C), Barwa Bank Q.S.C and International Bank of Qatar (Q.S.C) are in initial discussions about a three-way merger that would result in a combined entity with more than 160 billion Qatari rials in assets and share capital of more than 22 billion rials. The banks said a potential merger would create the largest Shariah-compliant bank in Qatar and the third-largest such bank in the Middle East.

* Commercial Bank (QSC) said it completed its put option for the acquisition of the remaining 25% stake in Turkey-based Alternatifbank AS that it did not already own from Anadolu Endüstri Holding AS for $224.9 million.

* First International Bank of Israel Ltd. agreed to sell Swiss unit FIBI Bank (Switzerland) Ltd.'s private banking activities to CBH Compagnie Bancaire Helvétique SA, Globes reported. The deal, which marks First International Bank of Israel's push to operate exclusively in Israel, is expected to complete in the first quarter of 2017.

* Doha Bank QSC CEO Raghavan Seetharaman said the bank is seeking approval from the Qatari central bank to establish a local subsidiary in India, the Economic Times reported. The lender has three branches in the South Asian country.

* The Iranian central bank is working on a plan to create a new regulatory entity responsible for authorizing financial technology firms and financial startups in the country, the Financial Tribune reported. Ali Kermanshah, director for innovative technologies at the central bank, acknowledged that the regulator is facing obstacles in regulating fintech firms. "Banking regulations in Iran are inefficient and restrictive. Our regulations should encourage innovation in the sector," he said.

* The Central Bank of Kuwait issued new regulations on the governance of Islamic banks in the country, where these banks hold about 40% of total banking assets, Reuters wrote. The new rules include requirements for external Shariah audits at Islamic banks, which have generally relied on internal boards of scholars to assess if banks are acting in accordance with religious principles. The directive must be fully implemented by January 2018.

* Kuwait Finance House KSCP dismissed press reports that Development Bank is seeking to acquire a controlling stake in Bahrain-based Ibdar Bank BSC, in which it holds a stake of about 30%, by buying the shares held by the Bahraini lender's Kuwaiti owners, according to Reuters.

* The Kuwaiti Capital Market Authority granted Gulf Bank KSCP a license to operate securities market activities, Reuters reported.

* Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, chairman of the UAE Banks Federation and CEO of Mashreqbank PSC, said banks in the country are open to mergers in the near term and noted that new deals involving Dubai banks cannot be ruled out, Reuters wrote, citing Al-Bayan.

* United Cooperative Assurance Co. hired accounting firm Ernst & Young to advise on restructuring its auto insurance business and insurance claims settlement operations. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority banned the company, effective Dec. 7, from accepting new subscribers to its auto insurance segment or renewing current policies due to failure to meet regulatory requirements regarding insurance claims.

* Bahrain Development Bank BSC named Satam Suleiman al-Qabisi CEO, replacing Nedhal Saleh Al-Aujan, who is retiring, effective Jan. 8, 2017, Al Ayam wrote.

* The board of Bank al Etihad approved a proposal to increase the Jordanian lender's capital to 160 million dinars from 125 million dinars, Reuters reported.

NORTH AFRICA

* The World Bank approved a $1 billion loan for Egypt to support the government's economic reforms program. The disbursement is the second of a $3 billion loan earmarked for the country, Reuters noted.

* Bank al-Maghrib retained its key interest rate at 2.25%, noting that the inflation forecast is consistent with its objective. Inflation dropped to 1.6% in October from a third-quarter average of 1.9% and is expected to edge down to 1% in 2017.

* Nonperforming loans in Tunisia rose 10.3% in 2015 to more than 11.6 billion dinars, compared to 3.7% in 2014, Il Boursa reported. The problem loans are mainly concentrated in the industry and tourism sectors.

* Jamal Lemridi will step down as CEO of Crédit du Maroc SA at 2016-end, L'Economiste reported.

Henni Abdelghani, Pádraig Belton and Sophie Davies contributed to this report.