Dubai banks playing a new tune

With debt-based investment banking falling out of favour, Dubai lenders are becoming more inventive. Private wealth managers now even guide clients through the process of buying collectibles such as fine art and rare musical instruments.

Violins, stamps and liquid wealth: finance executives such as Gary Dugan of Emirates NBD, left and Philip Hoffman of The Fine Art Fund Group are finding non-traditional ways to generate business. Satish Kumar / The National
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During Dubai's boom years, bankers were more likely to be found talking debt-financed buyout deals than advising on how to buy musical instruments. But these days, Gary Dugan, the chief investment officer of Emirates NBD Private Banking, is doing precisely that.

"The price of a high-quality violin hasn't fallen in value since the year 1600," he says.

Buy a Stradivarius, Mr Dugan suggests, and you can then lend it to the Metropolitan Orchestra in New York. The pitch is nothing if not straightforward, and one that he says is increasingly striking a chord with the region's super rich.

Priceless works of art, stamp collections and musical instruments are just some of the ways that the bank is seeking to tap into the rapidly growing wealth of the Middle East, as investment bankers fall out of favour across the industry.

"When you offer something like this, it resonates," he says. "They say that's something they've really been interested in, but they've never been able to express it in an investment."

Dubai's financial sector is filling with increasing numbers of private bankers - among the few in the industry who are avoiding job cuts.

Profits have plunged at many of the world's biggest banks amid tighter regulations on trading, market headwinds from the euro-zone debt crisis and the need to curtail costs at investment banking divisions.

But wealth-management divisions are bucking the trend. Coutts, the private bank that reportedly lists Queen Elizabeth II among its customers, announced last week that it had embarked on an expansion in the Middle East.

Despite its parent, the Royal Bank of Scotland, announcing last month that it would cut 3,500 jobs worldwide during the next three years, Coutts has hired three private bankers for its regional operations. It also plans to hire a further 20 across the region, with the majority expected to be based in Dubai.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch also announced the hiring of five financial advisers in the Middle East, as part of an expansion of its wealth management division.

The American giant reduced staffing levels worldwide recently, with about 7,000 jobs cut during the fourth quarter of last year. However, the bank said it had hired 200 financial advisers worldwide in its global wealth and investment management division during the same period.

Barclays Wealth has announced a number of senior hires during the past few months, while Emirates NBD Private Banking and Falcon Private Bank, owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, have also reported an increase in staff numbers.

Not all private banks have found business conditions easy, with the Swiss bank EFG-International withdrawing from Abu Dhabi and Dubai last year, and some in the industry are warning of a saturated market.

Banks rushed to Dubai in the past decade as vast amounts of wealth flowed through the Gulf with rising oil prices.

Between 2000 and last year, average wealth per adult in the UAE doubled - even accounting for a sharp dip in wealth after Dubai's financial crisis - while Qatari wealth increased more than fivefold, according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report.

The Gulf's share of the wealth pie has increased while the share of wealth in the West has dropped. During the same period, the share of global wealth in the US decreased from 34.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent, Credit Suisse's data shows.

And European wealth is diminishing as a result of the continent's sovereign-debt crisis, says Khalid Murgian, an executive director at Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

The Middle East's numerous family offices and institutional clients have become increasingly important to the firm, with the region now accounting for a larger proportion of its assets under management than Europe.

"The Middle East will become more and more part of our revenue generation going forward," Mr Murgian says. "We continue to put money and focus and senior people here."

The huge sums of money amassed by the Gulf's merchant families have been the source of fierce competition among banks seeking to manage that wealth.

The liquid wealth in the region totals as much as US$1.2 trillion (Dh4.4tn), mostly in the hands of local families, according to a study from Booz & Company. Most of the wealth is concentrated in Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. But tapping into the wealth of the region's family offices requires a top-to-bottom view of a client's affairs and finances that is rarely best served by investment banks, Mr Dugan adds.

"Because the clients here don't distinguish between their corporate and private wealth, the best business model for serving them is private banking," he says.

Getting to grips with a family's inner workings, such as who the head of the family wants to inherit his wealth and teaching younger members of the family how to invest, makes for a "more engaging" relationship.

"It's also a much more pleasant relationship with the client when you're talking with the family and encouraging the growth of the family, rather than just trying to make money," he says.