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Ajman Bank expects to open up to five branches in the coming year, bringing its total number of branches nationwide to 13. Jeff Topping / The National
Ajman Bank expects to open up to five branches in the coming year, bringing its total number of branches nationwide to 13. Jeff Topping / The National

Smaller banks picki up the slack

Small lenders in the UAE seek to beef up their branch networks and staff numbers this year, as international banks make cutbacks.

Smaller UAE banks are hiring staff, opening branches and rolling out new products at a rapid clip while their larger counterparts struggle with job cuts and the cost of regulation.

Al Hilal Bank, an Islamic institution fully owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, expects to hire 100 employees this year and open four branches, taking its total to 23, said Mohammad Zaqout, the bank's head of personal finance services.

Ajman Bank similarly expects to open up to five branches in the year ahead, bringing its total number to 13, said Asad Batla, its head of retail banking.

Other small lenders are also expanding.

"It's what we'd expect in the cycle of things," said Raj Madha, a financial analyst at Rasmala Investment Bank. "After the financial crisis they've started to look at growth again."

Emirates Islamic Bank is in the process of adding 170 staff and opening five branches this year, said Faisal Aqil, the bank's deputy chief executive. The Sharia-compliant lender, which is owned by Emirates NBD, plans to resume "aggressive" lending, he said.

United Arab Bank, a lender which is based in Sharjah, has also announced plans for four new branches this year, said Paul Trowbridge, the bank's chief executive.

The bank has also lowered interest rates on mortgages and announced plans to target UAE nationals as it makes inroads into Abu Dhabi.

The spate of hiring among small lenders comes as bigger financial institutions in the region are laying workers off. So far this year, HSBC Middle East, Barclays Bank and Shuaa Capital have all cut staff numbers in the UAE.

Al Hilal and Al Ajman are also shifting their customer focuses towards women and high-net-worth individuals.

This follows a change in regulations by the Central Bank that has capped loan fees and limited personal lending.

"Gone are the days where you could launch anything and everything and it would work," Mr Batla said. "Now you have to seek safe sections where people are not leveraged and not overburdened with debt."

Mr Madha was unconvinced, however, that strategies based around "red carpet" banking, or offering additional services without any added value, would prove particularly fruitful for small lenders looking to expand.

"That's exactly what the banks were competing on for the last 10 years," he said.

"Many of the larger banks are now making the next step towards a product-rich private banking offering."


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