It is now more than four years since the Saudi Stock Market (Tadawul) crashed spectacularly in 2006, yet the Saudi banking sector is still living in its shadow.

Profit levels have still not matched those heady days when banks were making huge sums from buying and selling shares on behalf of investors.

To top it off, the financial crisis has led to a sharp slowdown in borrowing, a fall in interest rates, and a rise in provisioning levels for bad debts.

The total profit made by banks in Saudi Arabia has actually shrunk by over $2bn since 2006. It showed signs of stabilising in 2009, but 2010 will be another difficult year.

Provisioning levels may be stabilising and economic growth returning, but margins will remain tight. Especially as banks are increasingly competing to lend, allowing the most credit-worthy borrowers to drive down rates.

Outside of top tier clients, banks remain cautious. They face pressure to start lending again and support the economy, but are putting loans through more rigorous approval procedures following the problems which emerged from lending to large corporates based on the strength of their name alone.

For the last few months banks have demonstrated that they are happy to sit on their excess cash and deposit it with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama), rather than lend it out. The loan to deposit ratio across the sector is just 61 per cent, well below the regulatory limit of 85 per cent.

Unless lending picks up significantly, banks will not be able to fill the gap left by margins falling. That may start to occur in the second half of the year, but so far 2010 looks like it will not be the recovery long hoped for.