Qatar needs to speak up and share its achievements with the rest of the world, states Dr Raghavan Seetharaman, CEO of one of its leading financial institutions, Doha Bank. Speaking to The Worldfolio, he looks at the country’s strengths, ambitions and expanding international links, as well as the significant impact Doha Bank continues to have on the country’s development, particularly though its green innovations and SME support.
What are the main strengths of the Qatari economy and what opportunities do you find in times of change?
Despite lower oil prices, real economic growth of Qatar in 2016 is expected to rise to 3.9%, supported by continued vigor of the non-hydrocarbon sector and the boost to upstream hydrocarbon production from the Barzan gas project. Construction is expected to lead growth in 2016 and is projected to expand by 9.9%. Strong momentum in the non-oil and gas sector will be sustained by capital spending on infrastructure and by relatively strong population growth this year.
The service sector is expected to continue to post solid growth. Financial, real estate, transport and communication, and business services will all benefit from real estate development and infrastructure projects. Trade and hospitality are also seen growing robustly, owing to conference activities and to growth in tourist arrivals, particularly from the region. Despite the drop in oil price the non-hydrocarbon diversification will continue which will give boost to infrastructure, real estate, SMEs and the services sector.
At a time when 50% of Qatar’s GDP comes from the non-hydrocarbon sector and in which there is a new law for public-private partnerships that is going to give a very important role to SMEs in the development of infrastructure projects, what opportunities do you see for Doha Bank to play even a bigger role in the financing of the local economy?
We were the first bank to brand the SME as a prospective solution for a sustainable economic backbone of Qatar economy. We are already geared with wide range of facilities being offered to SMEs, such as medium-to-long-term loans, short-term working capital financing, overseas trade finance viz. import/export, business loans, receivable financing, overdrafts, letters of credit and guarantees (bonds) etc. These were duly supported by other specialized services like internet banking, customized insurance solutions through our in-house insurance company – Doha Bank Assurance Company (DBAC) – cash management services, specialized payroll solutions, etc. This has enabled Doha Bank to offer all these under one roof.
Moreover, we have collaborations with Qatar Development Bank (QDB), particularly through the Al Dhameen Program, which has been a very welcome change. I believe the role of SMEs will be more vital for contributing to the Qatari economy on account of the public-private partnership development and thereby many opportunities will arise both on the funded and non-funded facilities.
What potential is there in the insurance sector?
The insurance sector in the country presents the excellent growth rate in the region and is to be boosted by a growing population, large-scale investments in infrastructure, new regulation and a still low rate of penetration. Based on these developments Doha Bank’s wholly owned subsidiary DBAC will look forward to opportunities in engineering and general accident to support the non-hydrocarbon diversification in Qatar. To address the requirements of growing population in Qatar, DBAC will offer insurance solutions in motor and medical.
How does Doha Bank differentiate itself from its competitors and what are currently its comparative advantages?
Doha Bank believes the customer is the king and always looks for innovative ways to fulfill customer needs. Capitalizing on our distinctive international network we led initiatives connecting MNCs from all jurisdictions where we have Representative Offices with our local operations. We made efforts transitioning cross-selling into a programmed process.
The distinguished approach is: diving deep, sizing the wallet of business opportunities, creating strong value propositions let by the client’s KPIs and the ecosystem in which customer is operating in, and helping the customer to better perform in areas which are going beyond the core of financial services.
On the retail front we focus on customer retention through a number of relationship-deepening measures and cross-selling. We have leveraged on technology solutions such as tablet banking and digitization to acquire new customers. We will continue to market personal loans – the most suitable retail lending product in Qatari market space with product innovation. We will focus on high-income Qataris to attract big-ticket stable loans. We will also focus on cross-border housing loans, especially in the UAE and India.
How is Doha Bank enhancing development in Qatar, not only in economic terms but in the other three pillars of the National Vision 2030 as well?
The four pillars of the National Vision 2030 are economic, social, human and environmental development. Doha Bank will keep supporting the economy as a leading financial institution by primarily supporting Qatar’s non-hydrocarbon diversification.
Our commitment to society encourages us to be a responsible corporate citizen. In terms of CSR we do green banking, knowledge management and, certainly, we also promote our human capital development. We support and lend to sustainable development projects and we also support SME entrepreneurs.
When it comes to environmental development, we were the first bank in the Gulf to start talking about green banking as part of sustainable development. Doha Bank has promoted paperless banking, internet banking, SMS banking, phone banking and ATM banking, as well as online channels such as Doha Souq, e-remittances and online bill payments. It has launched its Green Credit Card and Green Account. It also has a dedicated green banking website, which integrates the bank’s initiatives in promoting environmental safety with the community by reaching out to both the public and private sectors.
We conducted a Green Quiz, with global warming and climatic changes as a central theme to spread awareness in various countries.
Doha Bank has tracked the developments pertaining to various Conference of Parties (COP) meetings of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and we have also participated in various COP meetings.
Doha Bank was also involved in project financing to support the construction of Qatar General Electricity & Water Corporation’s Water Security Mega Reservoirs Project. It has also provided a loan for Emirates Central Cooling Systems, which provides Efficient District Cooling Services (DCS) to developments in Dubai and the surrounding region as part of green banking.
We support projects that encourage climate change mitigation and promote sustainable development. We have supported all this within the scope of Qatar’s four pillars for development. All this pillars have to converge in substance so that long-term sustainable growth can be ensured for the economy and for its people.
There have been major developments in the stock market here in Qatar, including new legislation allowing foreign investors to participate in up to 49% of the shares in a company. Another is that the Qatar Stock Exchange (QSE) has initiated the green program within the UN standards. In this context, what new opportunities are arising in the Qatari Stock Market and what is Doha Bank's situation?
Over the years, the Qatar Stock Exchange has been modernized through multiple collaborations. Doha Bank had interactions with the Qatar exchange on the listing of treasury bills and Qatar bonds. We welcomed the 49% announcement in terms of foreign ownership, and that is what Doha Bank has done. Foreigners can now own up to 49% of Qatari enterprises, whereas they could only own 25% before. In April 2015 the Qatar Central Securities Depository (QCSD) amended the foreign ownership limit (FOL) in the shares of the Doha Bank to 49% of capital. Also many listed companies changed their foreign ownership limit and by doing so enabled the Qatar’s country weight to be increased within the total Emerging Market Index. We have 14 of the 44 listed companies with a 49% or more limit and the QSE is meeting with the others and raising awareness of how important this is, as they try to build the market and raise the level of participation in the Emerging Market indices.
It is a welcome move by the Qatar exchange to initiate the green program within the UN standards and I believe this will bring environmental sustainability dimension to the investors as well.
You have previously commented that “Qatar is integrating into the world at a fast rate, and Doha Bank is part of that effort”. Certainly, tremendous progress has been made by Qatar and Doha Bank since you made that statement.
The population living in Qatar has grown over two and a half million people, out of which more than 60% are foreigners. Today, Qatar has a sovereign wealth fund that manages and controls natural gas reserves of 900 trillion cubic feet. It has managed to successfully develop a solid identity, and has been gaining recognition and credibility on the world stage. Qatar’s brand is now the ninth most powerful in the world, according to an annual ranking released by UK-based consulting firm ‘Brand Finance’ in 2015. As a progressive country, Qatar, through its visionary leadership, has used many strategies – in particular its soft power – to enhance its position in the international community. Qatar has been promoting cultural awareness and enhancing education, as well as research and community welfare, and establishing its flagship Education City, which hosts branch campuses of some of the world’s leading universities. In addition, Qatar has promoted tourism through hosting mediation forums/conferences.
Doha Bank looks forward to building trade and investment relationships with those countries that are major bilateral partners with Qatar and other GCC countries. Based on this approach, Doha Bank has established overseas branches in Kuwait, Dubai (UAE), Abu Dhabi (UAE), and Mumbai and Kochi (India), as well as representative offices in Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, South Korea, Australia, Turkey, the UK, Canada, Germany and Sharjah (UAE).
Doha Bank has participated in various syndications and provided various non-funded facilities based on its significant presence in the international market.
Qatar Investment Authority is setting up a branch in New York to invest $35 billion in the next five years, and cooperation agreements have been signed, such as the one between AmCham and the Qatar Chamber of Commerce. As the economic relationship strengthens, what opportunities do you see for Doha Bank as more US investors look for opportunities in the country and Qataris foster investment in the United States?
The US-Qatar bilateral relationship is an important one. The US plays a very important role in supporting the strategic mission of Qatar, in terms of trade, investments, banking and finance, in addition to defense and education, as well as political and social responsible executions.
In 2015 Qatar recorded $5.54 billion in trade with the United States. At year’s end, its top five Customs districts were Seattle, Houston, New York City, New Orleans, and Baltimore. Total US exports to Qatar were $4.23 billion and imports from Qatar were $1.31 billion. The US surplus with Qatar was $2.93 billion.
Qatar’s trade with the United States rose to $3.05 billion through the first four months of 2016. The surge in trade and other bilateral relationships between Qatar and US is going to improve synergies between them and thereby contribute to investment flows between them. Bilateral investments and trade can go in the right direction thereby banking can play a bigger role.
As the country plays a preponderant role in the region, how important is it for Qatar to speak up and share its achievements with the world?
Qatar should communicate with the rest of the world periodically on significant economic and business developments and its achievements as well. This will enable the rest of the world, particularly the global business and investors’ community to understand the dynamics of Qatar. This will enable them to engage with Qatar in a more productive manner.
What would be your main advice to the new generation of entrepreneurs that will lead Qatar’s path into a knowledge-based economy?
I believe in continuous education. Hence the new generation entrepreneurs should enrich themselves with knowledge sharing periodically. This should be on wide ranging subjects relating to the external environment in which they operate such as economies, industry trends, markets, technology and so on. This will enable them to support the business decisions and also contribute to knowledge-based economy in Qatar.