Should Nordic banks target the Middle East even after the Dubai debt debacle?

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Safe and sensible can have its advantages in the current climate, but could the stubborn reluctance of Nordic banks to dip their toes into the Middle East - something barely on the cards even before the Dubai debt crisis - leave Scandinavian bankers playing catch-up in the future?

The headlines emanating from the Emirate over the past few days have of course been dire but, in fact, many big international banks have been increasing their exposure in the region even during the crisis.

While Dubai remains the financial hub (for now), Credit Suisse is known to be doubling its Qatar team, while Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan have all made hires in Gulf markets outside of Dubai recently.

Nomura and Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi have launched Qatar operations during this year, while Barclays, Credit Suisse, Calyon, Nomura, Sociéte Générale and UBS have all also entered Saudi over the past 18 months.

Nordic players, by comparison, appear to be most notable by their absence.

"Like many international banks, Nordic banks often practise 'suitcase banking', essentially serving their Middle East clients from abroad," says Sven-Olaf Vathje, managing director of The Boston Consulting Group in Dubai.

As the banks have made clear since the crisis broke, their financial exposure in the region is not exactly vast either - with the woes of Dubai World unlikely to improve their appetite.

Nordea has said it has $19.8m invested in the emirate, predominantly in the form of lending to Nordic firms operating there, while Swedbank has said its exposure to the United Arab Emirates was less than SEK100m ($14.5m).

Handelsbanken has said it has no direct exposure, and DnB Nor has stressed it has lent nothing to Dubai World and that its exposure in Dubai totals $300m, or just 0.15% of its loan portfolio.

"The financial crisis will trigger market clearing among international banks in the Middle East. I currently see some players with opportunistic business models reconsidering their presence, and potentially leaving. But, as in any crisis, this will create space for new opportunities," argues Vathje.

"Nevertheless, right now it is hard for the observer to say what is going to happen in the short term," he adds.

One of the few Scandinavian banks to open locally in the region was Icelandic (and now state-owned) bank Kaupthing, which set up a branch office in Qatar in 2007. But it withdrew in the wake of its own crisis, and its licence there was withdrawn in August.

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