Banks expect their profit flow to ease up as nation's oil income slips

At the headquarters branch of the Saudi American Bank here, you can see businessmen leaving with six- to eight-inch stacks of 100-riyal bank notes (worth about $31 apiece) held openly in their hands.

They are not tucked in a paper bag or a briefcase, as would be usual in the United States. Nor do they always depend on delivery of large amounts of cash by armored car.

In fact, security against robbery is not a major problem for banks in Saudi Arabia, with its stern Islamic laws dealing with theft.

To the horror of Saudis, however, there have been three bank robberies involving violence in the last two years. The thefts, it is said here, were committed by Filipino and Korean guest workers here. All were caught; all were executed.

Nor, with Saudi Arabia's oil-backed boom, has making money been a problem for the banks here. For instance, Saudi American Bank, which is 40 percent owned by New York's Citibank, reported to shareholders at its annual meeting this month an average return on assets in 1982 of 3.8 percent and an average return on equity of 47.5 percent. Those, by world banking standards, are fantastic profit levels, though not unique here. The bank's earnings were 352 million riyals ($ 110 million), up 26 percent, on total assets of SR 10.9 billion ($3.4 billion), which had increased 44 percent from a year earlier.

But with the kingdom's oil income declining dramatically this year, the banks are not likely to grow so fast.

''Banking has been very profitable over the last several years,'' admitted William P. Sutton, a director of Saudi American. ''But banking is becoming a lot more professional and competitive. We will not be able to maintain these margins.''

Further, the mix of accounts is shifting away from interest-free demand accounts to more costly time accounts.

The big story in banking over the last several years has been Saudiization. Foreign-owned banks have had to turn over the majority of their shares (at least 60 percent) to Saudis. The two largest commercial banks in the kingdom, National Commercial Bank (NCB) and Riyad Bank, were already completely Saudi owned.

NCB is owned by two Saudi families, the Bin Mahfouz and Kaki families. (The bank has a spectacular skyscraper headquarters nearing completion in Jiddah.) The Sharbatly family owns a 20 percent chunk of the Riyad Bank. It used to own a majority until it needed government help in 1975, and now the Ministry of Finance owns 40 percent.

Saudiization of the other foreign banks is being completed this year with the merger of the three remaining ones, Banque du Liban et d'Outre-Mer (Lebanese), United Bank Ltd. (Pakistani), and Bank Melli (Iranian), into a new joint venture , Saudi Commercial United Bank. Each of these banks will have 10 percent of the shares of the new bank. A London-based bank, Saudi International Bank, will take another 10 percent. A group of some 95 Saudi individuals will pay SR 200,000 ($ 62,000) each for some 9 percent of the shares. And the public will be offered the remaining 51 percent.

Mahsoun B. Jalal, chairman of the new bank, figures that when the public is offered the stock, it will be oversubscribed 10 or more times.

''People have a lot of liquidity now,'' he said. ''They are anxious to buy assets.''

Mr. Jalal, a former Saudi executive director in the International Monetary Fund, suspects most investors will get only a few shares each, with shareholders totaling some 300,000. In the past, some families had several members bid for shares.

Total capitalization of the new bank will be SR 250 million ($28 million). Mr. Jalal expects it to be in business in about four months and add seven branches this year to the existing three. Saudi International Bank will have a ''technical service agreement'' for managing the bank, providing six or seven principal executives.

For the new bank, as for the seven other Saudiized banks, the main advantage of the change is the ability to branch freely within the kingdom.

Saudi American, for instance, started with two branches and now has 17. ''We are opening six or seven per year,'' noted Mr. Sutton.

For the Saudiized banks in particular, a major problem has been finding and training Saudi nationals to man new branches. One Saudi executive, joking with an American friend, asked how the new science of genetic engineerig was coming. ''Perhaps we could clone some Saudis,'' he said.

Saudi American, for instance, hired more than 100 Saudis last year, mostly young men fresh from university. It has been training them in such fields as accounting, finance, and sometimes the English language. It is especially difficult to hire experienced Saudi bankers, Mr. Sutton noted.

At the moment, the bank employs some 30 nationalities, with only 20 percent of employees being Saudi.

''We have too many foreigners,'' Mr. Sutton said. He noted that they are ''expensive'' and mean a lack of continuity, since expatriates usually leave for their homelands after a few years. ''It is good economics to get staffed with the indigenous folk.''

With the bank's employees growing from 400 four years ago to 1,200 now, the hiring of adequate numbers of Saudis has not been possible.

Saudi American Bank is the third largest in the country (perhaps second on the corporate side) and substantially larger than other newly Saudiized banks.

Riyad Bank, the second largest after NCB in assets, has the largest number of branches, 129.

Ahman Abdel-lattif, managing director of the bank, notes that more than 60 percent of his bank's employees are already Saudi, with 100 percent of the decisionmakers being nationals. Nonetheless, like other banks here, Riyad Bank is having difficulty finding enough Saudis capable of managing new branches. ''The problem is not whether we have reached the saturation point for branches, '' he said. ''It is whether you have enough Saudi managers.''

Riyad Bank has plans to make its first move into international banking, hoping to have a branch in London by the first quarter of 1984. National Commercial Bank has an office there already.

''Saudi Arabia,'' Mr. Abdel-lattif pointed out, ''in a very short time has moved from an import finance banking system to a system that can also deal with international markets, project financing, and investment.''

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