In an era of high oil prices, economic growth in the oil-rich Co-operation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (also known as the Gulf Co-operation Council, GCC) is assured. The GCC exceeded expectations last year with real GDP growth hitting 6.5 per cent, based on World Bank forecasts which also place UAE economic growth accelerating towards 4 per cent next year.
Since the launch of the GCC common market in 2008, the number of GCC investors and property owners in the UAE has doubled, with some 300,000 GCC nationals also investing in UAE stock markets when heavy reversals plagued other bourses. GCC nationals employed in the UAE have increased by nearly 50 per cent since 2008. Enrolment rates and tourist arrivals have also grown exponentially. UNB is the silent partner of the UAE government in bringing these longstanding GCC aspirations into robust reality.
"Our regional strategy is to support economic growth in the Middle East and establish our presence in regions where our clients expand," says Mohammad Nasr Abdeen, CEO of UNB. "We pride ourselves in being a stable, consistent and long-term partner to our clients."
UNB began its regional foray in 2006 with its acquisition of ACMB in Egypt. Using a controlled growth strategy, UNB chose Egypt to gain a foothold in new and promising markets of the broader MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.
The bank also debuted in the international bond market with a US$1 billion loan facility, a syndication that was oversubscribed by regional and international banks and was pegged at 27.5 basis points - the most competitive margin for a five-year tenor achieved by a financial institution in the GCC at that time. ACMB has been renamed UNB-Egypt and has 27 branches providing full banking services.
With an international banking unit actively assessing market opportunities in the pan-Arab environment to increase trade flows and raise shareholder value, Qatar and Kuwait became UNB's next stops. UNB received a Category 1 licence in Qatar in 2008, a first for a UAE bank. A Category 1 status allows a bank to set up a branch, accept deposits and provide credit to wholesale customers in Qatar. The Kuwaiti central bank followed suit in 2010 with a provisional licence, which allowed UNB to open its first branch in Kuwait. Since then, UNB has helped with landmark transactions for Gulf-wide interests. It supported Qatar's economic diversification with a US$30 million term loan granted in 2010 to Gulf Helicopters, which provides transport services to oilfield operators in the Gulf. It participated in the
US$1.24 billion syndicated loan arranged last year for Etisalat-Egypt, the fastest-growing mobile operator in Egypt and a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi-based Etisalat, the largest telecommunications operator in MENA.
Another milestone regional syndication was last year's 8.5 billion Saudi riyal (HK$17.6 billion) contract financing for Jeddah-based Saudi bin Laden Group (SBG), for which UNB was a lead arranger. The largest civil contractor in Saudi Arabia, SBG won the contract to develop and expand the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah.
With UNB's strategic position in three of the most economically vibrant markets in the Middle East and its network extending to the mainland, the bank straddles two high-growth global zones, the GCC and Asia.
"Having witnessed and learned from the global financial crisis and its comparatively weaker impact on China's economy, we are confident of our added value to Gulf businesses seeking to set up or develop in China and to Chinese businesses seeking the same in the Gulf," Abdeen says. "In the longer term, UNB is open to exploring possibilities of internationalisation further afield in the Asia-Pacific region, so long as it serves the purpose of furthering the interests of the GCC-China partnership."