Saudi Arabia may have the largest stock market and Dubai the highest international profile, but Qatar could soon be the best regulated financial centre in the Gulf.
In the autumn, Doha is expected to approve a law to create a single regulator for financial services. The new body, which has yet to be named, will take over the functions of the Qatar Financial Centre Regulatory Authority, the supervision division of Qatar Central Bank, and the Qatar Financial Market Authority.
A single regulator will mark a significant step forward for Qatar. International banks, insurers and asset managers prefer to deal with as few regulators as possible when they move into new markets.
Other centres are following its lead. Egypt, which is the largest outside the Gulf, plans to consolidate five of its regulators into one by March. The new regulator will have responsibility for everything except banking, which will continue to be regulated by the central bank.
The Central Bank of Bahrain, which is itself a single regulator, is also overhauling its rules to present financial services companies in the kingdom with a single set of regulations.
Regulators will help financial centres grow, but they are not the only means of enforcing market rules. In stock markets, the best enforcers are the market participants themselves.Foreign institutional investors, rather than domestic retail investors, are more likely to make firms disclose business plans, appoint non-executive directors and separate the roles of chief executive officer and chairman.
Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow foreign investors to indirectly buy shares will improve its market. But there are many other obstacles to foreign ownership and investor activism across the region. They also need to be removed if the region’s improving standards are to reach international norms.