A Habib Bank branch in Sharjah. The State Bank of Pakistan said in a report that some of the Habib Bank staff skirted rules when opening an accounts. Image Credit: Aghaddir Ali/Gulf News Archives

Karachi: A Middle East operation of Pakistan’s largest bank displayed “significant irregularities” in dealings with politically exposed clients and screening some transactions, according to an inspection by the South Asian nation’s central bank that took place more than a year after the lender was shut out of the US financial system.

The findings are contained in a State Bank of Pakistan report, finalized in the first half of 2019, on Habib Bank Ltd.’s operations in the UAE. The inspection was conducted after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global watchdog for illicit financial activities, put Pakistan on its monitoring list.

Employees in some of Habib Bank’s UAE branches helped certain customers disguise transactions by issuing pay orders in their own names, while gaps in risk profiling and monitoring reflected an “ineffective compliance function and compliance culture,” the central bank said.

In an earlier draft version of its inspection report, also seen by Bloomberg News, the central bank said UAE branch staff skirted rules when opening an account for Duduzane Zuma, the son of former South African President Jacob Zuma.

The critical nature of the findings, which haven’t previously been reported, offers further evidence of the sorts of weak controls FATF has been looking at more broadly in its assessment of Pakistan, though the central bank’s final inspection report also notes some remedial measures taken by the bank. After Pakistan was put on the FATF monitoring list in June 2018, it pledged to improve observance of global anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing controls.

License Surrendered

The previous September, New York’s banking regulator fined the Karachi-based bank for weak anti-money-laundering controls and sanctions compliance and ordered it to surrender its license, effectively removing the lender from the US financial system.

In response to questions from Bloomberg, State Bank of Pakistan said its draft and final inspection reports are confidential and as a result it’s unable to comment “on the veracity of observations purportedly related to inspection reports or inspection process.”

The draft report on the UAE operations of Habib Bank was prepared soon after an on-site inspection by the central bank. It includes lists of customer accounts that were flagged for allegedly involving various violations by Habib Bank staff. The final report has the same broad conclusions but incorporates input from the bank, and omits the lists of specific accounts.

The problems in the UAE branch have since been addressed by a sweeping overhaul that the bank started to roll out in the Middle East and other international operations in early 2019, according to Sagheer Mufti, Habib Bank’s chief operating officer.

“There were process issues and those process issues pertain to legacy clients and legacy transactions and legacy processes,” Mufti said in an interview, responding to questions about the inspection report.

According to the State Bank inspection report, which is based on the UAE branch operation’s results for the period ended September 30, 2018, the local business failed to comply with instructions from the head office in Karachi to close the accounts of all Iranian nationals. Some accounts were still active despite the lapse of a “significant time period,” the report said.

The bank was in the process of closing the remaining accounts “where possible,” it added.

Habib Bank  had total assets of 3.1 trillion Pakistan rupees ($20.1 billion) at the end of September.

It is currently focused on building up its operations in China to tap more business under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative.