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Sat 25 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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Are we banking on the impossible?

Banks. A few weeks ago we said lots of them would merge. But will that be such a good idea...

Banks. A few weeks ago we said lots of them would merge. Quite a few of them did. At the time I thought it was a good idea. I was wrong. It's only going to make things worse. I was asked the other day to name the three best banks in the GCC. I immediately thought to myself ‘this is easy, I can do this; no problem, I know most of the banks that operate in this region'. And that's where the problems began. Stuttering I broke into nervous laughter. Out came a series of random answers, one from Bahrain, Jordan and Abu Dhabi. I had no idea what I was saying. It was then I realised I had been deluding myself: there is no such thing as a ‘good' bank in the Gulf.

And I say that with good reason. Never in the last 18 months have I experienced or heard of such bad experiences with banks. My favourite personal example is what I call the ‘triple three'. I received three phone calls in three minutes from three different representatives of my own bank each explaining something totally insignificant. One even asked why I was cancelling my Mastercard Gold. I already had, three months ago. Where do they get these people?

My favourite third party example is the one where a bank ‘misplaced' thousands of dirhams during an international transfer to the UK, had no idea where the money was and had the audacity to charge that person US$40 to carry out an investigation. The case is ongoing, the person close to ditching his account.

And then there's the backbiting. Of course when you ask most bankers they officially say they ‘welcome competition'. Er, I don't think so. They don't welcome competitors, they hate competition and, like all businesses, drive as hard as possible to make more profit than anyone else, hit targets and get their annual bonuses. They also claim to ‘regularly train staff', and put customer service at the ‘top' of the priority list. But in an international marketplace Gulf bank staff still speak broken English or possess product knowledge as light as a handful of desert sand. Customer service may allegedly be top of the list but no one appears to have read the manual, either that or it got lost on the way to the training course.

Oh, and the other thing is they don't talk to one another. If the industry - one that made an average US$1bn profit per bank last year - is serious about minimising bad debt levels, surely data sharing is no bad thing? It makes sense doesn't it?

Then again three different reps from the same bank phoning the same person three times in three minutes, misplacing a large wad of cash and charging for no reason, and then ignoring each other when the simple solution would be to talk to one another... I'd hate to think we are asking for the impossible. If many, as they will, merge to condense an overcrowded market, surely problems will intensify? Please, whatever you do, don't dial freephone to find out.

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