These are testing times for any financial institution. But if there is a Middle Eastern industry relatively well-placed to weather the pressures of the international downturn, it may be insurance, writes Paul Melly...
Having been a relatively slow developer in the past - by comparison with the region's dynamic banking scene - the insurance business is probably less exposed to the pressures of the credit crunch. And in extending its reach among consumers, it may have room for expansion even at a time of cutbacks elsewhere in the economy. Indeed, the recent underlying trend has been strikingly vigorous.
In 2007, the industry grew by 27 per cent in the UAE and, before the credit crunch, analysts were suggesting that, across the region as a whole, future growth rates could be in the 18-20 per cent range before long. The Saudi insurance sector was already worth SR7 billion ($1.87 billion) and analysts suggested it could double or even triple in size within a relatively short timescale.
While the most bullish growth projections may have to be revised downwards, in light of global economic trends and the softening of the oil price in 2008, the overall pattern appears to be solidly established: the gradually extending reach of an industry that has yet to get to many of the potential personal or small business customers that the Middle Eastern market offers.
Moreover, it already has a solid base on which to build in key economies. In the UAE, for example, expatriates must now be able to show evidence of health insurance cover before they can secure a visa for work or even a visit. To cater for their needs, 30 different health underwriters are now active in Abu Dhabi alone.Greater take-up
In Saudi Arabia, the authorities have been phasing in a mandatory requirement for the use of nine types of insurance, including employer liability, health and motor cover. That represents a major regulatory change for a country where only 10 per cent of cars used to be insured.
The Saudi industry used to be dominated by the parastatal National Company for Co-operative Insurance; competition was limited and was largely provided by foreign companies represented by agents. Tougher regulatory requirements for the use of insurance have been coupled with the liberalisation of the market, under a 2003 sector framework law, to allow room for a wider range of providers. Banks in the Kingdom have already started to respond by buying stakes in new local underwriters, while foreign players are now able to get directly involved, through joint ventures with local partners.
A significant feature of the reform is that it allows companies to offer both conventional insurance and the Islamic equivalent, 'takaful' - although they have to be able to account for both lines of business separately, so that auditors can clearly see that the Islamic services have been provided on the basis of sharia-compliant financing and security. But this is a small price to pay for insurers keen to move into what is a particularly dynamic segment of the industry across the Middle East. Because so many potential consumers are Muslims, takaful has huge scope for growth - emulating the expansion already enjoyed by Islamic banking.
By early 2008, the Saudi regulators had licensed a score of new takaful companies. In Egypt, the pioneering provider of takaful, Egyptian Saudi Insurance House, founded in 2002, saw its premium income quintuple
over the first five years of its operation.
Other investors - Egypt Kuwait Holding (EKH) in partnership with Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance, Bahrain's Ithmaar/Solidarity Group and a UAE consortium of Amlak, Arab Orient Insurance Company and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank - are also moving into the Egyptian takaful business.
Fewer than 1 per cent of Egyptians use insurance at present. But the provision of sharia-compliant products is seen as a major tool for overcoming consumer resistance. "EKH sees great opportunities for profitable growth in Egypt, where insurance products have not yet reached the levels of acceptance that could be expected. The offering of the takaful scheme will remove one of the important barriers to the acceptance of insurance products by a large segment of the market," explained the chairman, Nasser al-Kharafi.Growing volumes
The sheer size and untapped potential of the Saudi and Egyptian markets is a particularly strong attraction for investors seeking to develop new takaful activity, because they can hope to spread the costs of developing business models to comply with local requirements across a large volume of activity. But even in smaller markets, there are signs that takaful - and retakaful (Islamic reinsurance) - is on an upward trend.
February 2008 saw the launch of Al Fajer Retakaful, Kuwait's first such entity, but the third to be established in the Gulf, with Dubai Group holding a 51 per cent stake. With paid-up capital of $178.5 million, and building on Kuwait's strong base in Islamic finance, it aims to be the largest retakaful company in the world. "Given the clearly evident growth in the takaful industry, there are excellent opportunities ahead for a new, strongly capitalised retakaful company," explained Sameer al-Gharaballi, vice-chairman and managing director.--Global Arab Network