Hassan Abdalla—CEO of the Arab African International Bank (AAIB) sat for an interview with Banker Africa on how Egypt’s rising economic prerogatives can help accelerate African economic integration efforts, unleash the continent’s untapped potentials and what the bank’s role is in this field.

What is your outlook towards Africa’s economic potential?

Africa is labelled the ‘last investment frontier’. Amidst faltering growth witnessed in mature economies, Africa has demonstrated resilience, and experienced growth outperforming the global average and the performance of emerging markets. The GDP growth rate, across all of Africa, is predicted to rise to 4.3 per cent in 2018. Thus, the African continent is witnessing a historic opportunity as it is evolving to the mainstream of the global economy.

Nonetheless, Africa still has huge untapped resources. Intra-African trade and investment significantly lag behind compared to other regions. Poverty is still overwhelming and growth is far from inclusive. There is much work left to unleash the growth potential of the African continent.

How do you see Egypt’s role in advancing Africa’s economic development?

The key word for African economic development is ‘integration’. This was true yesterday, is true today and will be true tomorrow. Economic integration is a timeless value.

Egypt is ripe to play a significant role in leveraging synergies and harnessing efforts towards holistic continental economic integration.

This is a fact of geography and history. In recent history, the economic synergies between Egypt and Africa have been envisioned as early as the 1960s and found institutional expression with the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1964 where Egypt played an instrumental role. The OAU aim was to advance opportunities for economic development of the continent through coordination and integration of the economies of individual states.

Interestingly, the Arab African International Bank (AAIB) is the economic expression of this vision. In 1964 the treaty of establishment of the bank—signed by the late President Gamal A. Nasser and late Crown Prince of Kuwait El Gaber El Ahmed El Sabah—spurred Arab African economic integration with Egypt as a pivotal actor. Unfortunately, as 50 years lapsed, the vision of the Arab African economic integration has not materialised as aspired. Apparently, politics has been a stumbling block preventing effective economic integration.

How is the current situation different?

Currently there is a new context in the making and one can cautiously assume that the continent’s dynamics are being reasonably determined by economic considerations rather than political ones.

The geo-economic advantage of Egypt—the nexus between the African and the Arab worlds overlooking the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal—is further boosted by the completion of the Suez Canal mega project of the twin canal. In addition, the establishment of the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone)—which is a significant development that will transform 461 square kilometres and six maritime ports strategically located along one of world’s most main trading routes into an international commercial hub. The SCZone will further sharpen Egypt’s competitive economic edge by connecting Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf area.

Moreover, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ will lend credentials to Egypt’s new Suez Canal economic corridor. Egypt has recently been in an accelerated economic development trade cooperation with China. Both countries have expanded two-way investments scale and carried out diverse cooperation in many industries like energy, telecom and infrastructure construction.

In context, the Egyptian government has initiated a strict financial reform that propelled remarkable currency devaluation to target fiscal imbalance and produced an empowering investment ecosystem for international investors. Accordingly, Egypt is groomed to channel large pool of public and private sector investments from all over the world and attend businesses interested in establishing partnerships to access the large African market.

Egypt is experiencing renewed economic dynamism and momentum, when you piece new developments together; it is easy to spot a burgeoning opportunity for enhancing its role in intra- African trade and investment relations.

How could these developments translate into tangible economic results?

The new dynamic landscape is availing opportunities to create Regional Value Chain. This is the optimum and ultimate aspired outcome to realise the latent economic potentials of Africa. Egypt can play a role in leveraging comparative advantages present in the continent and help establish value chains across Africa. Fast-moving consumer goods for Africa by Africa; Africa is home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations and an exploding middle class with more disposable income than ever before, consequently there is high demand for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), such as apparels, hygiene products, food and electronics. Currently, almost all these products are still being imported at the time their raw material is exported from Africa at low price.

Currently there is a drive to change this pattern; there is a deep commitment on part of the Egyptian government to enact its geo-economic weight. The landmark Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) agreement between the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Agreement (COMESA), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC), which was launched in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt in June 2015, created the largest trading bloc in Africa, with 26 countries, a combined GDP nearing $1.2 trillion, and a market of close to 620 million consumers. Once ratified by at least 14 member countries, TFTA availed international investors access to a huge economic bloc with limited trade barriers. Africa is a huge market where the Egyptian industrial and service sector could step in to create efficient linkages and synergies. Egypt ratified the agreement in 2017.

On another note, the surging dynamism and developments around the New Suez Canal Zone will revive old legacies. For one, they will lend a new dimension and renewed momentum to the COMESA agreement, which Egypt joined in 1998/9. As a free trade, investment and tariff cooperation platform, the COMESA provides direct access to around 505 million consumers. The Regional Investment Agency (RIA), which was established between Egypt and the COMESA in 2009, provides a window for Egypt to attract foreign investments exempted from all taxes and tariffs to establish new business in Eastern and Southern Africa. The rising giant global industrial and logistical hub in the Suez zone will avail logistical facilities to create value chains across the continent and hopefully become a manufacturing and exporting base for African commodities and raw material leveraging minimal transportation and labour cost.

Nevertheless, we have to be aware that—despite the fact that there is potential and dynamism toward intra-African integration—there are still on ground operational challenges across the continent at large including bureaucratic hurdles, weak transportation networks and geopolitical risks. Still the momentum should be created by Africa’s booming economic powers including South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Where do you see the demand for your investment banking expertise outside of Egypt?

AAIB’s vision explicitly frames our determination to become the investment gateway for international business into the region. Thus, the bank caters for all international investors’ needs across various sectors.

AAIB is witnessing rising demand from international investors from China, Europe and the United States who seek a comprehensive financial platform that provide them with integrated solutions. The Gulf region is the most forthcoming as a promising geographical base for investors approaching us; especially that AAIB is the first private sector bank to establish presence in the Gulf region in the early 1970s. The bank’s presence in the region is not only limited to its branches in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Beirut, as AAIB has strong client base in emerging Gulf markets including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. The bank adequately caters for international business targeting Egypt and Africa alike, especially that both are becoming attractive investment destinations.

On November 10, 2017, S&P revised Egypt’s outlook to positive on “rising reserves and strengthening economic growth”, a rating that reflects Egypt’s continued improvements in policy measures to attract investments and reduce debt levels respectively.

Additionally, we are quite equipped to serve investors across different parts of the world in all sectors who are willing to invest in Egypt, the Gulf region and Africa. It is to be noted that the UAE in the Gulf is the one of the top investing countries in Africa second only to China.

How competitive have you found the Egyptian market in your moves to expand regionally?

Egypt is becoming increasingly well positioned for enticing investors’ appetite; the recent economic reforms in Egypt to restore financial stability materialised into several measures. To name a few, introducing VAT and progressive taxes, slashing the public sector wage bill, and lifting of fuel subsidies, were pre-requisites to approve the recent IMF loan. The devaluation of the local currency, in addition to the mega projects around the Suez Canal, the New Capital and ambitious infrastructural projects, a huge market and skilled labour firmly paved the way to position Egypt on the global investment map.

Now I see that the current major economic reform programme held by the government, from liberalisation of the exchange rate regime to fiscal consolidation measures, is a key step towards restoring the competitiveness of the economy and boosting private sector activities that will affect positively on the investment in Egypt and the region. As an investment bank, I have a key role in this process by being a gateway for prospecting Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs).

FDIs are projected to respond positively as well by increasing significantly over the medium term due to the higher certainty and clarity regarding the foreign exchange policy paired with the new investment law

How are AAIB’s corporate banking differentiated from the competition?

AAIB is a true partner to its clients. We never let go during times of uncertainty. Most banks have more or less the same product offerings. The distinction mostly takes place at the relationship level and this takes hard work and talent to profess. AAIB has the necessary ingredients to stand out as a well-established corporate and investment bank. With strongly rooted corporate banking tradition and international exposure acquired over half a century, AAIB has a world-class investment professionals trained to provide innovative tailored solutions to each and every client as a standalone case that warrant a structured product offering. They act on their insight in an agile, bespoke and prompt manner.

Furthermore, AAIB has solid credentials as an investment and corporate bank leveraging a comprehensive financial platform to support its clients with integrated solutions. The bank has both commercial and investment arms, and is fully equipped to act as a trusted advisor providing complex solutions that sharply address our clients’ specific needs and challenges. We guide clients to grow in the right direction through a plethora of financial advisory services, including advising on equity placements, mergers and acquisitions, feasibility studies, valuations, escrow arrangements, agency services and raising finance through syndicated loan market. Moreover, AAIB has an edge in the local debt capital market in terms of issuing corporate and securitization bonds.

Another advantage is leveraging a financial group providing consolidated investment and financial services including asset management, brokerage, leasing and mortgage finance. Along with our strong regional presence, we are right on track maintaining our distinction and realising our vision to become the gateway of international business into the region. We are proud that despite of economic challenges locally and globally, we maintained a high pace of growth while maintaining quality portfolio and risk prudent policy.

I am pleased to share with you that AAIB just received ‘Bank of the Year’ award along with two other awards as ‘Best Banking Group’, ‘Best Investment Bank’ from renowned entities.

What challenges have you faced in the Egyptian corporate banking landscape?

The topmost challenge has been adjusting to the local currency devaluation that took place a year ago, other than that, we are part of the global banking scene. As we speak, the challenges facing the Egyptian banking sector are more or less similar to those facing banks worldwide.

We all have to adjust and revise our business models in a very challenging macroeconomic landscape. Banks are in need of re-evaluation of all types of risks and update them to avoid future crises since the banking risks are no longer traditional which includes credit risk, market risk and operational risk. In addition to such types of risks, new ones are added to the list are related to; electronic banking, social and environmental aspects.

Also topping the list is facing foreign exchange volatility, evolving international regulatory and compliance requirements including new risk management techniques and capital adequacy requirements in addition to tighter banking supervision. Compliance cost, data reporting, and necessary IT infrastructure are becoming additional costly mandates. Basel III will add further capital and supervision requirements that will put pressures on banks’ profitability and trigger the risk-return trade-offs.

It is no longer ‘banking as usual’. Banks cannot sustain their profitability unless they undergo a fundamental revision of how they do business, revise policies, systems, structures, including development of human resources skills. It is quite challenging.

Why is it important to support SMEs in times of economic difficulties?

SMEs represent the core of economic and social development. Imagine when banks are exclusively serving and catering for the top of the pyramid while ignoring the middle and bottom segments….the whole structure will collapse. Long considered as the largest SME hub in the Middle East as per operating density and pure numbers, SMEs in Egypt constitute 90 per cent of the private sector and employ almost 65 per cent of workforce. Egypt’s current economic challenges are urging it to rebuild and reinforce this vital base. Strengthening and integrating value chains involving all segments will trigger balanced development and sustained inclusive growth. This understanding has been crystallised into a national trend collectively driven by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) and the Egyptian government.

Currently financial institutions are being urged to revise their business model to attend small and medium businesses; The CBE mandated the Egyptian banks to give out 20 per cent of their total loans to SMEs, with five per cent interest rate. The new CBE initiative follows on a steady campaign by the authorities to expand banks’ involvement in financing 350,000 companies to create around four million job opportunities for the Egyptian citizens in a four-year period.

However, there is also a drive towards revising the current regulations for SMEs and improving the legislative infrastructure to better empower and regulate this segment. Additionally, the financial sector is bent on advancing financial literacy and education to help prepare entrepreneurs with the right financial knowledge, which will subside the asymmetric information that currently causes a huge challenge for SMEs.

On its part, AAIB is led by a conscious decision to cascade its services to micro- and SME-lending markets, which were identified to be the optimum opportunity for loan portfolio diversification, and the base for creating new revenue streams in uncontested markets. Consequently, AAIB’s strategic direction institutionalised the expression by setting up a micro finance company Sandah for very small and micro lending, in parallel to establishing a specialised department for SMEs lending.

What is your personal management style?

I bond to inspire and challenge to motivate AAIB team to innovate and excel.

Will we see an expansion of regional integration of banking and financial services between Egypt and the continent?

This is bound to happen. Currently Egyptian banks are tapping into Africa, though we are quite late.Egyptian Investment firms have active businesses in Africa. We are also attending our corporate clients who do business in Africa especially in the energy, power, infrastructure and construction sectors. However, there is a significant cooperation at the regulatory level, where the financial inclusion plays a crucial role in the integration between central banks. The CBE recently hosted the Alliance for Financial Inclusion international conference, which witnessed representatives of regulatory bodies from emerging markets. In addition, another area of rising common interest is that Egypt is moving in the direction of digitalizing financial services. The CBE is currently engaged in a number of efforts to advance financial inclusion by enhancing access through mobile payments.

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