x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

London looms large for region's new RBS chief executive

Working more closely with the bosses in Britain is high on the agenda for James Miller, who recently took over as chief executive of the bank's Middle East and North Africa operations.

James Miller, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland's Middle East and North Africa. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
James Miller, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland's Middle East and North Africa. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Last weekend we learnt that Stephen Hester, the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, derives satisfaction from watching the asparagus grow in his English country garden.

James Miller, the new chief executive of RBS's Middle East and North Africa business, is inspired by more prosaic enthusiasms, but arguably more appropriate ones for a banker.

"Trade finance is the area of most upside, where the opportunity to grow the business is very substantial," he says.

Mr Miller has been in the region for a couple of months, since he took over from Simon Penney, who was lured away by First Gulf Bank. He brings with him 13 years of experience at RBS, and an instinctive feel for what London wants from the region.

Rather than watching the vegetables grow, he has been getting to grips with the RBS set-up in the Middle East.

"They [his London bosses] were looking for someone who could kick the tyres of this business and ensure what we do is in line with the bank, so closer connectivity with London was a key thing," he says.

Like its parent, RBS in the region hit a wall in 2008. It had been very active in corporate lending to parts of Dubai Inc - including the big debtors Dubai World and Dubai Holding - that were forced into restructurings at the time of the global financial crisis.

RBS back then was a "one stop shop" outfit, offering the full range of corporate and investment banking services in addition to brokerage and advisory business. It made for an expensive and cumbersome business, out of synch with the new mood of austerity.

One urgent priority was to deal with the loan book to Dubai and other regional entities that had fallen on hard times. As a major lender, RBS was among the lead negotiators in the restructurings that took place then and are only now coming to conclusion.

"In Dubai, we have played a strong role in the process of debt resolution. We have played a key role in helping Dubai to develop a serious plan for repayment and a strong leadership role via coordinating committees. In the long term we're very comfortable with the situation here and very committed to the UAE," says Mr Miller.

RBS has been ready to play hardball in debt negotiations, even bringing a legal action in the London arbitration courts against Dubai Holding at one stage, but it appears more sanguine now that it will get some of its loans repaid.

After that, the priority is to reshape the business in the region to reflect the new priorities of the parent company. Still majority owned by the British government, RBS is changing fast, and the Middle East business has to match that transformation.

"We intend to do this in three main areas," Mr Miller says. "[First,] financing across corporates and financial institutions, including advisory where appropriate, on a select basis, although we're really not focusing on M&A any more. Second, on risk management; and thirdly on transaction services - that is banking needs and trade finance.

"We only want to focus on those areas where we're strong. We were not a top bank in equities or M&A. It's a process of reforming rather than restructuring."

That does not appear to be any downgrading of the RBS commitment to the region.

"Strategically, we have more of a reason to be here than many of the others. Our job is to serve clients round the world, so given the trade flows, you have to be in this region. We're a financing business and that's a big factor here, especially with regard to infrastructure investment," he says.

"From the point of view of the owner, the British government, it's a good thing to be here for the shareholders. And we can help with opportunities to invest in the UK, helping private entities and sovereign wealth funds to do that," he adds.

RBS has 200 employees across the region, slimmed down from peak numbers a few years ago. Most are in the UAE, assisted by specialists in London, but expansion is planned in Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the big economy of the region, does not seem a likely expansion area for the time being.

In addition to trade finance, RBS looks certain to continue playing to its traditional strength in debt capital markets in the region.

"Bond issuance, both sukuk and conventional, is already well-established here, and it will only gain in importance when Basel III makes project financing more difficult. The quality of projects that need funding is stronger here," says Mr Miller.

The big event on RBS's global horizon is the planned sell-down of the government holding. There has been speculation that Arabian Gulf institutions might take part in this, underpinning the share price in the event of a public sale.

This is sensitive ground for Mr Miller. He will say only: "We are not at that stage just yet. We're now in the phase of building a profitable business."