Can you elaborate on the strategies that Ahlibank has adopted to deal with the economy in Oman?
Ahlibank became a fully fledged commercial bank in 2008, prior to which it had been a purely retail housing bank. We have established a footprint of 20 branches, having set up electronic delivery channels for internet banking, both for personal and corporate customers. We also have a fully fledged business-to-business (B2B) internet banking proposition. We are about to launch mobile banking services as well. Ahlibank has been growing its assets and liabilities and retaining capital. Overall, 2013 was a landmark year for two reasons. First of all, we opened seven Al-Hilal Islamic branches, and now have the largest number of Islamic branches in the country. We also formalized a dedicated SME unit that provides both Islamic and conventional facilities. Ahlibank provides traditional working capital finance and leasing. Customer interest, particularly in our Islamic window, has been highly encouraging. Because we are growing from a relatively smaller base in the country, we grew our loan base three times faster than the sector over 2013, while deposits grew two times faster. Comparatively within the sector; therefore, we are growing rapidly, although the key consideration has been to maintain credit quality, whereby the ratio of our non-performing loans (NPLs) has remained flat at around 1%. Over and above that, it is evolving. We are constantly exploring new propositions for fresh products, particularly in Islamic banking.
Do you anticipate launching any new projects in Oman over 2014?
We are about to launch mobile banking applications, and also introduce an Islamic credit card. And with the increasing acceptance of Islamic products, we are set to introduce more. We were one of the first banks to launch an Islamic investment fund in 2013, called Al Hilal. It invests in Islamic operations and companies throughout the region. Perhaps one of the biggest gaps in the market right now concerns Islamic banking. We have two dedicated Islamic banks in the country and most of the other banks have set up an Islamic window, which means they conduct both conventional and Islamic business. There is significant deposit generation going on within the Islamic banking sector, but not too many opportunities to invest with Islamic compliance. Many commentators expect that the government will issue a sukuk in 2014, and that we will see some of the companies involved in major projects either issuing sukuks themselves, or else project bonds, because there is considerable liquidity that is being invested overseas that can be tapped within Oman.
As the new CEO, what are your personal targets for 2014?
I would say that continued sustainable growth is our aim. We want to grow the balance sheet, but we also want to keep NPLs in check. The metrics we challenge ourselves on are return on equity (ROE), return on assets (ROA), and to be best in class in terms of cost efficiency, which is currently the case. More specifically, we will build out our SME business and continue to develop our Islamic window. Meanwhile, we also want to provide our employees with the best working environment possible, and our new head office serves as a prime example. We strive to ensure that our colleagues enjoy a level playing field for career development, and we promote on merit. We want our colleagues to have meaningful, long careers with the bank and serve as ambassadors. Our focus on customer service is the overriding consideration, however, this year. I am highly optimistic about the opportunities for the banking sector in Oman as there is a stable, well-regulated economy that is open to foreign investment. There are also many expansion projects—roughly OMR10 billion worth of projects over the next five years. The Sultanate is establishing strategic logistics centers, such as Duqm and Sohar, as well as new airports, ports, and railways.