Saudi Central Bank to extend loan relief to SMEs until September

Smaller companies affected by the pandemic have deferred financing deals worth 167bn riyals so far

A Saudi money exchanger wears gloves as he counts Saudi riyal currency at a currency exchange shop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
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Saudi Arabia's central bank extended loan relief measures aimed at helping smaller businesses through the pandemic by another three months.

The Deferred Payment Programme, through which micro, small and medium enterprises affected by measures to stem the spread of Covid-19 can defer loan repayments, was due to end in July.

The scheme, which was first introduced in March last year, has been extended until September 30, the Saudi Central Bank said. It was first introduced in March last year.

"The extension of the programme is consistent with the Saudi Central Bank's mandate to maintain financial sector stability and to enable financial institutions to support economic growth and employment levels in the private sector," the central bank said.

Sama, as the central bank is known, has taken a number of measures to stabilise the kingdom's economy since the onset of the pandemic last year, cutting interest rates and implementing a 50 billion riyal ($13.3bn) stimulus package.

The extension of the relief programme to MSMEs "will be subject to assessment by the financing entities", the central bank said.

So far, the value of deferred payments stands at 167bn riyals, while guaranteed financing through another programme has allowed companies to tap a further 10bn riyals.

Saudi Arabia's economy is expected to grow 2.1 per cent this year and 4.8 per cent in 2022 after contracting 4.1 per cent last year, the International Monetary Fund said last month.

Separately, Saudi Arabia's cabinet also approved licences for two digital banks.

STC Pay, a digital wallet in the kingdom, will be converted to STC bank – a digital bank with capital of 2.5bn riyals. A group of investors also received permission to set up Saudi Digital Bank with capital of 1.5bn riyals.

With the cabinet's approval, Sama will restart its work to finalise technical and operational requirements for the two lenders to begin operations, Fahad Al-Mubarak, Sama governor, said in a statement.

Digital banks will be subject to the same supervision and controls that are applied to commercial lenders in the kingdom, with an increased focus on technology, cyber security, anti-money laundering, tracking terrorist financing, as well as operational risks, the governor said.

The rise of FinTech and an increasingly smartphone-savvy consumer base have prompted banks worldwide to rapidly digitise their services, leading to the emergence of neobanks or digital-only banks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated the pivot to digital services across industries.

Several digital banks are in the process of being launched in the region. In April, Emaar Properties' founder and managing director Mohamed Alabbar said he will be heading Zand, the UAE’s first digital bank that will cater to both retail and corporate clients.

Earlier this month, Al Maryah Community Bank, another UAE digital lender, said it has finished the design of its technology platform, complete with artificial intelligence capabilities.

Last year, ADQ, one of the region's largest holding companies, said it plans to set up a digital bank in the UAE using a legacy banking licence held by First Abu Dhabi Bank.