ICBC, the world's biggest bank, reports a doubling of profits and reveals its ambitions to take on the UAE's retail banks in courting Chinese customers.
Chinese bank ICBC heads to UAE
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) more than doubled its profits from the Middle East as more companies settled business deals using accounts in yuan. The Chinese currency has been offered as a means to settle transactions by the bank since March.
Now the bank, valued at US$240 billion (Dh881.5bn) by market capitalisation, wants to build a retail franchise in the Emirates. That would put it in direct competition with Standard Chartered and HSBC, said Shabbir Malik, a financial analyst at EFG-Hermes.
"There are Chinese engineers or workers who are coming in to develop the infrastructure and they'll want to cater to them . maybe helping with remittances and maybe offering them credit products," he said.
ICBC's first-half net income rose 116 per cent to $14 million. The state-owned bank, which has branches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, had avoided any ill-effects from the aftermath of the Arab Spring, said Tian Zhiping, the bank's chief executive Middle East.
"Despite the political turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa we maintained significant growth across all areas of our business and we remain committed to pursuing our growth strategy for the region by increasing the scale of our existing business, broadening our range of products and services and expanding into new markets in the Middle East," he said.
ICBC is "well-positioned to facilitate the rapid growth of trade and investment between the Middle East and China", said Mr Tian.
The bank, which is yet to report profits for the first half at a group level, is planning to roll out operations throughout other Gulf states where it does not already operate.
"The bank has plans to develop a retail banking business in the UAE, subject to regulatory approval, and also intends to expand further in the Middle East prioritising the growth of its business in Qatar and expansion into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait," the bank said.
But the scale of participation by Chinese companies and workers in government development projects made catering to expatriates from China a potentially lucrative business, Mr Malik said.
The population of Chinese expatriates in the UAE currently numbers 200,000, according to the Chinese Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
But trade finance has been the real cash cow for ICBC. China conducts a substantial amount of trade with Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is China's 13th largest trade partner, and the UAE which is its 20th, according to 2010 data from Eurostat.
Many banks in the Middle East, including Standard Chartered and HSBC, have rushed to offer yuan-denominated business banking accounts to local companies, anticipating increased trade as China seeks to internationalise its currency to compete with the euro and the US dollar.
Before the end of the year, the yuan is expected to overtake the UAE dirham and the Saudi riyal to become the third-most popular currency for trade settlement in the Middle East and North Africa, according to data from HSBC.