Saudi banks must fight to survive

30 November 2007

Over the past two years, 78 new investment banks have opened their doors in Saudi Arabia. The number of people they employ is about 33,000 - about 3,400 more than this time last year. And the sector should keep on growing by 10 per cent a year for the next three years.

In a country wondering how to find jobs for so many young people, it could be just what is needed. But such rapid growth contains its own problems.

With so much money and opportunity floating around, it would be surprising if there were not some dubious operators, and indeed the market regulator, the Capital Markets Authority, has already revoked several licences.

Meanwhile, other firms are struggling to attract enough staff and have to turn away business.

Despite such problems, the banks should make the most of the good times while they can because, inevitably, they will not last for ever. The weakest firms will fail, while others will be taken over.

In the end, the number of investment banks will shrink markedly. Any institution that does not make rapid progress in the current market will be overtaken, swallowed up or left behind.

There are a few key things that a bank will have to do well to avoid such a fate. Paramount among these is customer relations. Client relationships are critical in a market with so many family-owned firms looking to raise finance or list shares.

Another is the ability to offer a complete range of services, from corporate advisory to wealth and asset management.

Major international firms are likely to find the second of these easier to do, while home-grown rivals should have an advantage in forging strong relationships with potential clients.

Among all the rivalries between the myriad banks, that is likely to be the most significant battle of all.

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