* Net operating income up 7.6 pct
* Loans and advances rise 9.6 pct
* Al-Sager maintains strategy set by predecessor
* International banking profit grows 15.5 pct in Q1 (Adds details, CEO comment)
DUBAI, April 13 (Reuters) - National Bank of Kuwait , the Gulf Arab state’s largest commercial lender, reported a 3.2 percent rise in first-quarter net profit on Sunday, edging ahead of analysts’ expectations.
Net profit was 83.9 million dinars ($298.6 million) in the three months to the end of March, compared to 81.3 million dinars a year ago, it said in a bourse filing.
Five analysts in a Reuters poll had predicted 80.70 million dinars in net profit on average for the quarter.
NBK, which opened a new office in Dubai in March, saw its international banking profit grow 15.5 percent in the first quarter of this year.
Group chief executive officer Isam Al-Sager said the bank would maintain a strategy focused on diversification, international expansion and a stronger push into Islamic finance.
Earlier this year he took over as CEO from Ibrahim Dabdoub, who ran NBK for three decades and helped transform it from a local lender into the Gulf’s fifth largest bank by assets.
Sager said on Sunday that NBK’s first-quarter profit was mainly driven by core banking revenues. Net operating income grew 7.6 percent year-on-year to 158.4 million dinars, while loans and advances rose 9.6 percent to 10.95 billion dinars during the period.
During the first quarter, the bank’s non-performing loans (NPL) to gross loans ratio dropped to 1.93 percent from 2.72 percent a year earlier.
The bank’s vice chairman Nasser al-Sayer said last month that Kuwait’s domestic operating environment was improving. The market is seeing some acceleration in the tendering, award and execution of some large infrastructure projects. ($1 = 0.2810 Kuwaiti Dinars) (Reporting by David French and Mirna Sleiman; Editing by Andrew Torchia)