DUBAI (Reuters) - Qatari lenders Al Khalij Commercial Bank (KCBK.QA), Ahli Bank AABQ.QA and International Bank of Qatar are in early-stage talks on a merger that could pool assets worth more than $30 billion, three people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Should the deal go ahead, it would be a rare example of consolidation among banks in the Gulf region, where powerful local shareholders are usually reluctant to cede control due to the prestige of owning their own lender.
But with Qatari banks grappling with the impact of lower oil prices, combined with the longstanding issue of the country having too many banks, the logic for such mergers has become more compelling. Around 18 local and international lenders currently service Qatar’s population of 2.4 million.
Calls and emails to representatives of all three banks went unanswered.
Should the merger go ahead, the combined entity would have assets worth upwards of 120 billion riyals ($33 billion), according to Reuters calculations, putting it on a par with Commercial Bank of Qatar (COMB.QA), the country’s third-largest lender by assets.
Though the negotiations are taking place, and a deal could benefit all three parties, there is no guarantee any agreement will be reached: the last time a bank merger was attempted in Qatar, between Al Khalij Commercial Bank, known as Al Khaliji, and IBQ, it collapsed in June 2011 after more than a year of talks.
Discussions between the trio are at an early stage and no advisors have been hired yet, according to the three people, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information was private.
The lenders are currently trying to win backing from key shareholders at each of the banks, according to one of the sources, an important consideration in a country where state ownership is prominent across the economy and political factors can often supersede other considerations.
Should these blessings be secured, the banks could then move on to technical aspects of combining their businesses, such as the ownership split of the new entity, the person said.
Al Khaliji, the largest of the three lenders, is 39.99 percent-owned by the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) sovereign wealth fund. Ahli Bank is 29.4 percent-owned by Qatar Foundation, a state-owned investment vehicle traditionally focused on science and education which bought its stake from Bahrain’s Ahli United Bank in 2013.
Unlisted International Bank of Qatar has senior Qatari royal family members among its major shareholders, including Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the former prime minister and head of QIA who serves as chairman of the bank.
While complex, a three-way combination is feasible and would create potential benefits for all three, as well as the banking sector in general, according to a senior Qatari banking industry official.
“The banking sector is too fragmented in Qatar so the central bank should welcome consolidation,” the official said. “It could reduce the need for them to prop up the smaller banks if times get tough.”
He added Al Khaliji, which uses interbank markets more frequently for its funding, would benefit from the tie-up as Ahli Bank and IBQ are both largely funded by deposits. Meanwhile Ahli Bank has also traditionally kept a tight lid on costs and has a better return on assets.
($1 = 3.6407 Qatar riyals)
Additional reporting by Tom Finn in DOHA; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Kenneth Maxwell