x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE bank customers caught in crossfire over US sanctions

Banks are increasingly under the gaze of American financial regulators, which are cracking down on money flows to sanctioned nations and offshore tax evasion. For many, this may prove troublesome.

The US Treasury has a long reach, with banks in the UAE and around the world facing pressure to more closely scrutinise their customers. EPA / MATTHEW CAVANAUGH
The US Treasury has a long reach, with banks in the UAE and around the world facing pressure to more closely scrutinise their customers. EPA / MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

UAE residents from countries such as Syria, Iran, Sudan and the United States might be forgiven for thinking they are fast becoming banks' least favourite customers.

As wide-ranging regulations from the US affect local banks, some are turning away customers from countries under sanctions if their source of wealth cannot be determined.

Not only that, new reporting requirements for US customers - designed to prevent tax evasion - are also causing concern among lenders.

With so-called "know your customer" checks becoming more common, banks are finding the expense of maintaining some accounts is no longer worth it, and closing their doors to residents of certain nationalities.

But all bank customers are likely to feel the effect of new regulations in the increased amount of time required to conduct banking services such as account openings, says Julien Faye, a partner and the head of financial services at Bain and Company.

"All of the deposit taking and wealth management activities are becoming more complex for banks," he says. "For most banks in the region, processes such as account openings, new credit cards or new credit limits ... are already very cumbersome and bureaucratic."

With the addition of extra layers of know-your-customer checks at random intervals, the customer experience can quickly become "terrible", he adds.

HSBC and Barclays - both of whom have previously paid hefty fines to US authorities for lax money-laundering controls - are among banks who have changed their policy to limit services for individuals and companies from countries under sanction by the US and European Union when it is not possible to verify the source of funds.

Because of the sheer volume of transactions that are handled by retail banks and large corporate customers, the potential penalties of unknowingly breaching sanctions against Iran from the US office of foreign assets control (Ofac) can mount quickly, says Eric Volkman, a partner at Latham & Watkins, a law firm.

"If the target is active for five years worth of wire transfers, you can get a penalty number that's really substantial," he says. Compliance costs have "unquestionably increased" for banks as a result.

But another big source of worry is the foreign account tax compliance act (Fatca) - also known as the "fear and total confusion act" by some, in reference to the wide-reaching effects that it is having on the banking sector.

The act, which came into effect at the start of this year, forces banks to report any accounts held by American citizens to the US tax authority to ensure they are not evading taxes. Foreign banks are the explicit target of the act, which can impose a 30 per cent "withholding tax" on transactions.

"While Fatca was designed to catch wealthy investors who may be avoiding their fair share of tax, it will hit the average US citizen, who is living overseas and make their lives much more difficult," said Keren Bobker, senior consultant at Holborn Assets.

"I would suggest that people who may be affected start to look at the alternatives right away, which may include accounts in their home countries and in various offshore jurisdictions," she said, though this could potentially expose customers to higher transaction fees.

The effects of Fatca in particular have been far-reaching, with UAE banks taking substantial efforts to comply with the new rules. RAKBank, for example, warned its US customers in a letter in September that it was reviewing all of its compliance procedures.

The letter states that one option under review might require RAKBank "to cease banking for individuals who fall under Fatca regulations".

Banks have few options: deposits are becoming more costly for compliance reasons, while prepaid cards and credit cards were easier to process by comparison.

Lenders can attempt to add more rigorous checks for account openings - or bar new accounts entirely if it is too expensive to service them.

Typically, mass retail customers are not the kind who run the risk of breaking sanctions, Mr Faye says. A smooth account-opening process might even give banks a competitive advantage.

Further complicating matters for consumers, banks in the UAE are far from transparent when it comes to the potential effects of the new regulations.

"RAKBank is fully compliant with [Fatca] and will keep our customers advised of relevant developments," the bank said, when asked if any accounts had been closed since the September letter.

The bank declined to comment further on its compliance processes.

Even US banks are hesitant to reveal where they stand.

"We're an American bank, so we're fully compliant with Fatca and are ensuring we are compliant," said Dinesh Sharma, the managing director and head of consumer banking at Citibank.

"By definition as a US bank, we ensure 100 per cent compliance to any sanctions ... without diluting our customer proposition."

The bank declined to comment on whether any accounts had been closed or transferred as a result of either Fatca or sanctions exposure.

ghunter@thenational.ae