Growth And Change: Q&A With NBK Chairman Salah al-Fulaij

Salah al-Fulaij, vice chairman of NBK Capital and CEO of NBK-Kuwait, discusses winning the high-net-worth and youth markets.

Global Finance: Kuwaiti banks, including NBK, came through the pandemic relatively unhurt and ready to take on new challenges. What are NBK’s priorities now?

Salah al-Fulaij: We are extremely proud of our performance over the past two years, as it successfully demonstrated the resilience and strength of our business model.

We dealt with a constantly changing operating environment while keeping momentum on strategic investments in new technologies to develop our customer base, offer new products and services and increase market penetration. In addition to our digital transformation efforts, we continue to strengthen our regional leadership in wealth management.

GF: NBK recently launched its Weyay online bank. Why now, and who are you targeting with it? Is this a Kuwait-only product?

Al-Fulaij: Kuwaiti youth represent a third of the country’s population. They are also a key segment of NBK’s Consumer Banking customer base. As this segment becomes more competitive, we embarked on a journey to defend our market share and provide a more attractive offering.

Weyay provides an integrated package of advanced products and services that help the youth better track and organize expenses, accumulate savings and find investment channels to grow these savings. Weyay is a key pillar in our local digital strategy and will serve as a springboard for regional growth.

GF: Looking at NBK Capital, where do you see growth potential for investment banking in the region?

Al-Fulaij: If you look at regional markets, initial public offerings [IPOs], listings and fixed-income insurances are flourishing. This should reflect positively on investment banking revenue streams. At NBK Capital, we strive to grow our assets under management by strengthening our existing client relationships and expanding into new markets.

We consolidated NBK Capital and the Private Banking Group to form the NBK Global Wealth Management [GWM] division. The new division combines the investment banking and asset management capabilities of NBK Capital with the expertise and client-focused interfaces developed by the Private Banking Group. Through GWM, we aim to provide comprehensive solutions to our HNWI [high-net-worth individual] clients. Locally, we believe the infrastructure gap in Kuwait still requires significant investments. We expect a recovery in project activities, with promising opportunities once the momentum is restored and public-private partnerships are revived. Moreover, we continue to benefit from our dominant oil and gas sector coverage. We also focus on regional expansion, especially in Saudi Arabia, through Watani Wealth Management Company.

GF: NBK already has a presence in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. What is NBK’s added value in these markets? How are you planning to grow there?

Al-Fulaij: Our strategic focus remains to secure further growth in the Gulf Cooperation Council, specifically Saudi Arabia and UAE as well as in Egypt. On the other hand, we reevaluated our presence in some markets, which resulted in closing some branches in certain countries like Iraq and Lebanon. We also recently signed an agreement to exit Jordan.

As for our growth plans in international markets, we continue to focus on cross-selling opportunities to capitalize on our extensive network, focusing on wealth management in Saudi Arabia and the retail sector in Egypt. We seek to expand our retail and wholesale banking services in the Egyptian market by investing in digital services and acquiring new customers. In Saudi Arabia, we recently established a wealth management company and seek to increase our commercial banking activities.

GF: There is a new wave of consolidation in the Gulf, with megabanks emerging into regional powerhouses. What is NBK’s stance on the matter? Are you contemplating potential mergers and acquisitions?

Al-Fulaij: We continue to explore all opportunities that support our sustainable and future growth, provided that they present attractive prospects and have synergies with the Group’s operations. Our goal is to create long-term value for our shareholders.