Gulf banking markets may have entered an important phase of consolidation, with the potential to dramatically reshape both the role and the intermediation capacity of the industry. A few days ago, two large banks in the UAE, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and First Gulf Bank, agreed on a tie-up to create a national champion and regional powerhouse with $170 billion in total assets. In Oman, Bank Sohar and Bank Dhofar are in advanced merger talks. Bank mergers are expected to take place in Bahrain and Qatar as well.
The protracted downward trend in oil prices is threatening economic growth and fiscal sustainability in the region. This is having an impact on the banking systems. Banks are increasingly facing pressure on liquidity in the face of both private and public deposit outflows. This coupled with a low interest rate environment in the context of pegged currencies is eroding margins. Capital buffers are strong yet asset quality may deteriorate if oil prices remain low for a prolonged period and economic growth decelerates further. Therefore, in a context largely characterized by fragmented markets, consolidation may help achieve efficiency gains and ultimately preserve financial stability.
However, it is important that banking consolidation in the Gulf does not come at the detriment of competition. International experience shows that healthy bank competition generally promotes access to finance and improves the efficiency of financial intermediation, without necessarily eroding the stability of the banking system. Bank competition in the region is traditionally weak largely due to strict entry requirements, restrictions to bank activities, relatively weak credit information systems, and lack of competition from foreign banks and nonbank financial institutions. While increased market concentration does not necessarily imply greater market power, there is a risk that the current and prospective wave of industry consolidation may have long-lasting negative effects on competition if left unchecked.