Saudi Arabia: First Major Bank Merger In Nearly Twenty Years

Wave of change sweeping Saudi Arabia finally hits the banking sector.

Alawwal, which means “the first” in Arabic, was the first bank established in Saudi Arabia, in 1926, as a branch of the Netherlands Trading Society. It later became known as Saudi Hollandi Bank, officially taking the name Alawwal Bank in 2016.

Now it is likely to be taken over by SABB, the Saudi British Bank, creating the kingdom’s third-largest bank—with about $77 billion in assets. The $5 billion price in the proposed all-stock deal is a premium of 28.5% to the market.

Alawwal is 40% owned by a consortium including Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)—which holds an estimated 15%. RBS has been reducing its overseas exposure since it was bailed out by the UK government during the global financial crisis. It is expected to hold 5% of the new entity—a portion much easier to sell.

The SABB-Alawwal deal, which requires shareholder and regulatory approval, comes 20 years after Samba Financial Group merged with United Saudi Bank, of which Citi owned 22.8%. Citi recently won its first local advisory mandate after returning to Saudi Arabia last year, when it got an investment banking license from the Capital Markets Authority.

Other international banks are establishing a presence in the kingdom, enticed by the government’s Vision 2030 plans for diversification and privatization, which are expected to generate considerable capital markets activity. In March, Goldman Sachs doubled its investment banking staff in Riyadh.

HSBC, which owns 40% of SABB, is already active in the Saudi capital markets through its 49% stake in investment bank HSBC Saudi Arabia, which is advising Saudi Aramco on its proposed share sale. HSBC “is already a premium player in investment banking [in the kingdom], and this will only reinforce its credibility for government and premium corporates,” Saudi Fransi Capital said in a research note.

The merger accord came a week after the kingdom launched the Financial Sector Development Program 2020 to help achieve the goals of Vision 2030. The program aims to create a diversified financial-services sector able to support private-sector growth and an advanced capital market.