x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Wholesale ambition for Emirates NBD's banking nomad

Giel-Jan Van Der Tol, the head of wholesale banking at Emirates NBD since 2011, says Dubai is a very positive, inspiring environment for a banker.

Giel-Jan Van Der Tol says Dubai is well-placed to be a centre for international sukuk banking. Pawan Singh / The National
Giel-Jan Van Der Tol says Dubai is well-placed to be a centre for international sukuk banking. Pawan Singh / The National

As a self-confessed "international gypsy", Giel-Jan Van Der Tol appears to have found a spiritual home in Dubai, where he has been the head of wholesale banking at Emirates NBD since 2011.

"This is a very positive, inspiring environment for a banker, and Dubai is a unique development, building a true financial and commercial centre in just a few decades," he says.

The view from his corner office at the bank's headquarters in Deira shows the full panoply of the emirate's success, from the commercial landmarks of the Creek all the way down to the Dubai International Financial Centre and Burj Khalifa. "It's truly inspiring," he says.

Mr Van Der Tol has plenty in the region to use as a comparison. The Dutchman's early career at ABN-Amro took him all over the region, with spells in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Beirut before he was lured to Dubai first as chief executive of Dubai Bank, then with ENBD.

ENBD was formed in 2007 as the "national champion" of the Dubai banking business, but when Mr Van Der Tol arrived, it was a champion with a challenge. The global financial crisis had taken a serious toll on the bank, perhaps to a greater extent than other UAE or regional banks, mainly because of its position as a lender to state-owned and government-related companies.

"Now we're in a healthier condition. We've been working through the restructurings with customers, and working through our own challenges," he says.

Provisions associated with the restructuring of Dubai Inc have run at between Dh3.5 billion (US$952.8 million) to Dh4bn for the past few years at ENBD, but Mr Van Der Tol says confidently: "There will be a distinct improvement this year."

That is good news for the bank and its stakeholders, and comes against a backdrop that he believes is generally benign for the emirate.

"Overall Dubai debts are reckoned to be more than $100bn, and only some of that has been restructured, so there is more to do. But this is an affluent part of the world and the economies are growing, which is more than you can say about America and Europe. It has substantial revenues and the sovereign wealth funds are still investing round the world."

He believes that the big restructurings of 2009-10, which some analysts fear will have to be restructured again in the next couple of years, were "well thought-out restructurings", and that asset values are recovering.

Apart from having responsibility for restructuring, his wholesale banking division also takes in corporate banking, institutional and international banking, investment banking, transactions and Al Watani Al Islami, ENBD's Islamic banking business.

Investment banking in the region has had a tough few years, as the flow of deals in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) has slowed and initial public offerings have been virtually non-existent, at least in the UAE. Here too, Mr Van Der Tol says things are improving, with an injection of vitality from the debt capital markets.

"We've been involved in all the big debt issues of recent months, and we've staffed up to cope with the increase.

"Dubai is well placed to be a centre for international sukuk banking, and we'll play a senior role in that," he says.

Indeed, ENBD itself has tapped the international debt markets, in both conventional and Islamic banking, and could be set to do so again in the near future.

The pressure is on for any local sukuk issuer to list in Dubai, rather than London, the biggest global sukuk market.

Mr Van Der Tol declines to commit the bank to list any future sukuk in Dubai, but says: "Dubai will only increase in importance for sukuk."

On M&A work, he says we could be seeing the first signs of a pickup in the business: "Following the crisis, a lot of companies had to adjust their processes and become more efficient. Most have achieved this. If the improvement continues, we will see an increase in M&A."

ENBD is the national champion of the Dubai banking business, so you would expect international expansion to be a priority.

Last year, it bought the Egyptian arm of the French bank BNP Paribas, and Mr Van Der Tol believes there is room for growth in Egypt's distinctly underbanked market.

He also sees opportunities in two other big regional economies: Saudi Arabia, where ENBD is the only UAE bank to have a banking licence; and in Turkey, where the bank has been considering expansion or acquisition for some time.

His ambition is to be the "wholesale banking powerhouse in this region", he says. "The economic environment is picking up, and at ENBD we are open for business, for the private or public sector."

"I've spent my whole career at big international banks, and I find ENBD impressive, a unique combination of local expertise and international best practice. I've never seen that combination of elements before."