MetLife has big plans to cover the region

The purchase of ALICO from AIG will give the insurer a higher profile in the promising Middle East market.

Powered by automated translation

MetLife, one of the world's largest life insurers, aims to become a force in the region after buying ALICO, the life insurance business of American International Group. The Middle East had been missing from MetLife's portfolio of 18 countries. William Toppeta, the president of MetLife's international business, said the acquisition presented a great opportunity for the insurer to extend its footprint.

"Obviously, life insurance is growing more dramatically outside of the US than inside. We will certainly continue what ALICO is doing [here in the region] and then we will add our own products. What we will add depends on the planning process." The Middle East is attractive to insurers because it is severely underinsured. Per-capita premiums in the Gulf account for an average of 1 per cent of GDP, which compares with some of the poorest regions in the world. Premiums reach about 15 per cent of GDP in developed countries.

In the Gulf, insurance premiums grew 28 per cent last year. The market's potential has also lured many newcomers, bringing the number of insurers in the UAE alone to 58, about half of which are foreign. The large number of insurers competing for a small pie means premiums are some of the lowest in the world. Personal lines of insurance are particularly undeveloped. Within that segment, car insurance and health insurance are the most common products, particularly as regulators gradually make them mandatory. Life insurance, the core strength of ALICO and MetLife, is an even newer concept.

ALICO, with 2 million customers in the countries between Pakistan and Egypt, offers mostly accident insurance, life insurance and fixed annuities schemes, which are also known as private pension plans. MetLife hopes to complement ALICO's regional business. "Obviously, we are talking very long term, there literally needs to be a lot of consumer education," said Mr Toppeta. He looks also to offer the company's life products to its major US customers in the region. MetLife sells employee-based life insurance to 90 of the Fortune 100 companies.

The company also sees opportunities in borrowing-related insurance. Many families buy mortgage insurance, for example, in case the main breadwinner can no longer pay the monthly instalments. "People [in emerging markets] acquire more physical assets and want to make them available for the family. The need for insurance comes when the amount of borrowing goes up," said Mr Toppeta. MetLife also expects to see demand for its variable annuity schemes from the region's high-net-worth individuals and family offices, a type of wealth management.

"We will look at the various [Middle East] markets [covered by ALICO], the customer needs, the size of the market and what people want and what we can provide," said Mr Toppeta. MetLife said it would spend the next months, as it awaits regulatory approval for its ALICO purchase, to plan for the integration of the two companies and to scout the markets for opportunities. It hopes to close the deal by November 1.

ALICO is active in 55 countries and has 20 million customers. Its presence in the Middle East and Japan complements MetLife's activities in China, India and Brazil. MetLife has 70 million customers. ALICO is considered one of the success stories within AIG, which had to be bailed out by the US government. The sale of ALICO for US$15.5 billion (Dh56.93bn) will give the US government an indirect stake of about 20 per cent in MetLife, in addition to its AIG holding of 80 per cent.

AIG owes about $8bn to the New York Federal Reserve as well as $47bn of bailout funds to Washington.