Gulf Takeover Binge Has Bahrain Opening Up to More Bank Mergers

(Bloomberg) -- Bahrain, once a Gulf finance hub, favors further consolidation among its banks, according to a top official and the head of a leading lender.

The takeover of Bahrain-based Ahli United Bank BSC by Kuwait Finance House KSCP “is a good example,” said Jean-Christophe Durand, chief executive officer of National Bank of Bahrain BSC, known as NBB. “Because it is a small market,” mergers may be “cross-border,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Manama on Tuesday.

When asked if his bank’s currently party to any such talks, he said: “For the time being, there are no specific ones. Are we open? Yes, we are open to new ideas.”

An unprecedented consolidation wave is sweeping the Gulf’s financial industry as firms look for ways to stay competitive in an era of lower oil prices. At least five lenders are merging in a region that’s become saturated with banks, including a three-way deal in Abu Dhabi and the cross-country combination in Kuwait and Bahrain.

“We are hopeful that both conventional and Islamic banks will have the opportunity to look into their future business plans and see consolidation as an option,” Bahrain’s central bank governor, Rasheed Al-Maraj, said during a panel discussion at a conference on Tuesday. Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Co., the country’s sovereign wealth fund, is NBB’s main shareholder.

‘Critical Mass’

Mergers are increasingly warranted because investment requirements in banking are growing, so reaching “critical mass“ is becoming important, Durand said. The CEO has already signaled NBB’s openness to potential M&A opportunities in an interview a year ago.

The lender said earlier this week that it had abandoned a plan to acquire Bahrain Islamic Bank, in which it already holds a 29 percent stake. NBB has studied the opportunity, but “the timing was not right,” Durand said. The plan hasn’t been completely abandoned, he added.

Below are other highlights from the interview with NBB’s CEO:

  • NBB, which is mostly a retail-oriented bank, has embarked on a transformation seeking to take a bigger role in financing local projects
  • “One of our pillars in the future is to be more active in the local economy, to be leading larger financial transactions, projects”
  • The lender wants to be “top of mind” as a local bank to all large borrowers, including activities in capital markets and risk management

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