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Qatar's biggest bank turns to Asia to offset Saudi-led campaign

Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 14:05

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Qatar National Bank QPSC's expansion into Asia is helping the lender offset the impact of the ongoing Saudi-led campaign to isolate the gas-rich Arab state, its chief executive officer said.

[DOHA] Qatar National Bank QPSC's expansion into Asia is helping the lender offset the impact of the ongoing Saudi-led campaign to isolate the gas-rich Arab state, its chief executive officer said.

The Middle East's biggest bank by assets aims to cut the income generated from its domestic market to 50 per cent by 2020 from about 67 per cent currently, Ali al-Kuwari said in a Bloomberg TV interview, his first since the standoff began on June 5. The bank will apply to open a branch in Hong Kong this year and convert its China representative office to a branch that can receive deposits, he said.

"We are going to be pushing more in Southeast Asia," Mr al-Kuwari said at the bank's headquarters in Doha on Wednesday. "We do business in 31 countries and our diversification is really working and helping to overcome any crisis." The bank also plans to open new branches in Oman, Kuwait and India, he said.

Qatari lenders are coming under pressure after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic relations and closed transport routes last month, accusing the nation of funding Islamist terrorism, a charge it denies. Some banks in these countries are said to have cut their exposure to Qatar amid concern of a widening of the blockade, while Qatari lenders are boosting interest rates on dollar deposits to shore up liquidity.

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The impact from the one-month standoff with its neighbours "is very little," said Mr al-Kuwari, who has led the bank since July 2013. Gulf countries "represent less than 5 per cent of the balance sheet. Even if the situation continues forever, to diversify 5 per cent is so easy and doesn't really take so much," he said.

QNB on Tuesday reported a 2 per cent increase second-quarter profit to 3.45 billion riyals (S$1.27 billion) as provisions and expenses dropped. EFG-Hermes Holdings SAE had estimated a profit of 3.21 billion riyals, while NBAD Securities predicted 3.47 billion riyals.

The bank is maintaining its annual profit guidance at 6 per cent to 8 per cent and expects its diversified revenue and funding sources to mitigate the regional standoff, al-Kuwari said.

"We didn't see any abnormal increase in the cost of funding," he said. "QNB is a highly-rated institution, it's an AA institution. Investors love the QNB story, love the Qatar story." A prolonged conflict between Qatar and its neighbours may leave the country's banking sector "vulnerable" because of its reliance on foreign funding, Arqaam Capital Ltd said in a report last month.

QNB has more than doubled its assets to US$211 billion over the past five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It's also spent about US$6 billion on acquisitions in countries including Egypt and Turkey. It bought Societe Generale SA's Egypt unit and a 20 per cent stake in Togo-based pan-African lender Ecobank Transnational Inc. It also bought Turkey's Finansbank AS for US$3 billion in 2015.

QNB shares closed up 2.1 per cent on Wednesday. The stock has dropped 9.7 per cent since the embargo on Qatar began, dragging the country's main stock gauge down 6.5 per cent over the same period. QNB is the index's biggest member with a weighting of about 17 per cent.

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