When Elissar Farah Antonios became chief executive of Citibank in the UAE, based in Dubai, at the start of this year, it was, she says, "almost like coming home".
Her appointment was the culmination of a long association with this country by her family in Lebanon. Her father, a businessman in the electrical and contracting sector, had worked in Abu Dhabi in the 1960s, when Sheikh Zayed was paving the way for nationhood, and she enjoyed a long stint as head of private banking for Citi in the UAE.
“I sometimes feel that nationality is just a piece of paper, but I feel part of the place here,” she says.
Nonetheless, the move to the top Citi job in the UAE is a considerable step up the corporate ladder of the New York global banking giant, which brings with it considerable challenges.
Beirut, where she ran the bank’s local unit, is a much smaller operation than the UAE, where the full spectrum of Citi’s international business is replicated. “My personal challenge is to make sure I connect with all our business partners, and that I’m on top of all the most pressing issues in the UAE,” she says.
The job puts her in an excellent position to assess the state of the UAE economic and financial system, and she admits that we live in “interesting times” as the country, and the region, seeks to adapt to lower oil prices, with all that means for policymakers in a region still highly dependent on revenue from crude.
“The oil price has had a direct impact because it still dominates the economy despite efforts to diversify, especially in Abu Dhabi. I think the response from UAE policymakers to the falling oil price has been the correct one, to try to live within the new financial realities. Policymakers have so far done all the right things, but in my view there will be more consolidation,” she says.
“The merger between First Gulf Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi gives the UAE a major global player and I believe there is room for more consolidation in the banking sector. Smaller institutions will face challenges in the new financial environment, for example in increased regulatory and other administrative costs. The pressure is on to consolidate,” she says, making it clear that this will be a continuing process. “Our economists do not believe that the oil price will recover to anywhere near the level of two years ago. Prices might rise, but not quickly and not to the same levels as before.”
So while there is a squeeze on public finances and a knock-on effect in an economy where the government sector drives much activity, Ms Antonios does not think the UAE will suffer a repeat of the global financial crisis eight years ago. “This is not 2008, in my own view and in that of our economists and risk analysts. The UAE is better positioned now than it was then. The restructurings that took place then were efficient and successful, and since then there have been further restructurings that have left the UAE well placed to deal with the debt repayments coming in the next few years.
“The UAE’s institutions have a greater maturity now and the policymakers have shown they can take the appropriate measures. I have no doubt they will meet the maturities. I’m very confident of that,” she says, reeling off the differences between now and then from a banking perspective.
“In 2008 there was an overexposure to highly leveraged real estate, which is not the case now. And there was a global liquidity crisis then, also absent now. Capital markets are very healthy for local issuers. Citi led the Eurobond issuance for Abu Dhabi [earlier this year], when a US$5 billion issue attracted $20bn,” she points out.
She also believes the UAE can continue to enjoy its reputation as a “safe haven” in an often troubled region, citing its connectivity, infrastructure and legal framework, as well as the quality of leadership, all of which have persuaded some of Citi’s top corporate clients – some of the biggest companies in the world – to set up regional headquarters in the UAE.
“There is a progressive leadership here driving diversity, tolerance and liberalism. I often think the West could learn a lot from the UAE,” she says.
Citi’s strategic policies reflect this commitment to diversity. About one-third of its staff in the UAE are Emirati, and many senior executives at local banks learnt some of their trade at Citi. “One of my missions as CEO is to hand over to an Emirati, it is part of my personal agenda,” she says.
The other strand to the diversity strategy is to further empower women in the Citi workforce. Her own appointment is a clear signal, she says, that female advancement is a global policy sanctioned at group level in New York. “Believe me, I know I didn’t get the top job in the UAE just because I’m a woman. It’s such an important job they would never appoint a woman just for the sake of it,” she says.
Many of these women work in middle-ranking executive roles in Citi’s consumer banking business in the UAE and it is here that Ms Antonios sees the other big challenge as Citi, like other large retail banks, faces the twin imperatives of cost and technology.
“Citi is a consumer bank and we remain committed to that, but it is a rapidly changing world and we need to understand that too. Today, fewer than 5 per cent of transactions are conducted in branches and the banks simply have to up their game in the digital world, especially for the younger generation who are increasingly less likely to go to a branch,” she says.
Citi has been proactive in the fintech revolution that has affected all retail banks, sponsoring a global programme to support fintech start-ups that has led to 20 initiatives. Mobile banking has also been a priority, as has its eBrokerage online trading system.
The whole concept of “branch” banking is changing, she says. “We have five branches in the UAE and I do not think we would want more even if we could have them. Now we have ‘smart branches’ – customer service centres – as well as 72 ATMs.”
The new banking environment has also led Citi further up the banking value chain. “We have refined our customer targets. Can we service the entire population of the UAE? No, we cannot, and we would not want to. So we focus on where we can add value. The new customer proposition is that you have to have $10,000 minimum balance in your account to become a Citi customer. We will not close accounts of existing customers below that amount, so they are still being serviced. But new accounts have to hold to that balance,” Ms Antonios says.
She insists that Citi remains fully committed to the region, even as some international banks are scaling back significantly. “My father helped build the UAE and it was good to him. I feel it’s my destiny to give something back,” she says.
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