There are international, regional and local banks, all well financed, well regulated and well run. Although there have been one or two notorious banking scandals in the region, notably the closure of BICC bank, banks are generally solid and well supported, and both the regulation and finance exist to forestall major incidents in the future.
Banks fall into a number of categories. Some central banks operate as clearing banks as well as being the regulatory institution. There are also corporate or merchant banks, providing venture and investment capital for institutional investors. Investment banks extend their services to individual investors, notably ‘high net worth individuals’ interested in portfolio management. Finally, there are retail or ‘high street’ banks for the masses. There are no savings and loan banks or mutual building societies operating as banks in the region. The services offered in other countries by these organisations are undertaken by the ‘normal’ banks in Saudi Arabia.
An interesting aspect of Middle Eastern banking that you’re unlikely to involve yourself with (unless you’re a Muslim) is Islamic banking. The teachings of Islam ban interest or usury, and Islamic banking involves the centralisation of funds within a bank. These resources are then used, for example, to fund a construction project or other type of investment, which in turn produces returns, which are then shared out in proportion to input.
As a working expatriate, you’re likely to open a standard current or deposit account with one of the many international banks found throughout the region. Banks such as Standard Chartered, Citibank, British Bank of the Middle East and others provide a reasonable service, bank charges are quite low and loan terms are competitive. (Banks are keen to attract customers and therefore eager to issue loans.) Banking in Saudi Arabia has now become highly automated compares favourably with banking in other advanced countries.
Some banks offer drive-in services, although doing business quickly is unnatural to the temperament of the region. Others provide mobile banking facilities for outlying villages and remote areas. Large industrial complexes often have banks on site for the convenience of their workers and this is also the case with some civil service organisations such as police training centres.
If you have a complaint against a bank and cannot resolve it through the bank’s senior administration, the next course of action is to appeal to the Chamber of Commerce for advice, or perhaps the regulatory Central Bank; the civil court is your last recourse, but this is rarely necessary.
There are variations in bank opening hours throughout the region. In general, banks are open from 8am to 1pm, Saturdays to Wednesdays, when many banks re-open in the afternoon from 4.30 to 6.30pm. On Thursdays, opening hours are usually 8am to noon, and banks (like other businesses) are closed on Fridays. Companies dealing in foreign exchange and money transfers usually work later in the evening, particularly those located in shopping malls and main shopping thoroughfares. At major international airports, bank facilities are usually open 24 hours. Public holidays are observed by banks, which conform to the holiday periods set by the governing administrations for private sector companies.
In Saudi Arabia, work sometimes begins earlier, with a longer midday break and longer evening hours. During the holy month of Ramadan, banking hours are shortened by 45 minutes in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.