The gains from mergers is showing up in the financials of leading insurance firms in the UAE. The consolidation process could take in more players. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: All that hard work of the last 3 years is starting to pay off for the UAE insurance sector, with its leading names closing out 2023 in a much stronger position than in the recent past.

This is where mergers and acquisitions have helped, with the UAE Central Bank – in its capacity as regulator – providing the guiding hand. The initial results are very much in positive territory.

Nothing exemplifies this than the numbers for Watania International Holding, boosted by integrating Dar Al Takaful into its fold. The merger led to cost synergies of around Dh20 million in 2023, according to a statement the insurer put up on DFM after its nine-month results. Just as vital was bringing down the net loss, from Dh26.5 million in Q3-22 to Dh6.6 million for the recent third quarter.

“Our company is well positioned to play an expanding leadership role in the growth of the national insurance sector,” said Dr. Ali Saeed Bin Harmal Al Dhaheri, Chairman of Watania, in a statement at the time. “The outlook for our financial performance is increasingly positive as we achieve further milestones in the journey to complete the integration and transformation of the merged entity.”

The emphasis on ‘merged entity’ is of particular importance. For the UAE insurance sector as a whole.

Consolidation is what UAE insurance needs

That the UAE had too many insurers had been a constant chatter in industry circles for more than a decade now. Each difficult year would see that sentiment getting amplified, but would then take a backseat the moment things turned upbeat. The problem was that those upbeat phases were not prolonged.

This is why the years since Covid was seen as critical for the longer term revival of the UAE insurance industry. And that meant fewer players, where possible – mergers and acquisitions were seen as the permanent cure.

The Watania-Dar Al Takaful and a planned merger between Salama and Takaful Emarat were thus seen as core to the industry-wide revamp. (The latter two did proceed quite some distance in effecting a merger, but called it off early this year.)

Another big move has been that of Sukoon’s (formerly Oman Insurance) buy of its Dubai-based peer ASCANA (Arabian Scandinavian Insurance). Sukoon, one of the Top 3 insurers in the country, had been putting deal-making to good effect to emerge stronger as a result. ASCANA has since been rebranded ‘Sukoon Takaful’.

Stock Sukoon Insurance
Sukoon Insurance went in for more than a name change. The Dubai insurer has been through a series of deals, culminating in the buying of Arabian Scandinavian Insurance (or Ascana), which is now called 'Sukoon Takaful'. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

In a statement early December, Jean-Louis Laurent Josi, CEO of Sukoon Insurance, said: “Our customers will have access to a wide range of Sharia-compliant insurance solutions in addition to our existing, conventional insurance products, backed by our award-winning customer service and rock-solid financials.”

Sukoon, incidentally, had earlier acquired the life insurance portfolio held by Assicurazioni Generali in the UAE, as well as that of Chubb Tempest Life Reinsurance.

For insurance insiders, the deals made strategic sense, and something that others need to follow. “We foresee a period of consolidation where better managed insurance companies will take over the portfolios of undercapitalized ones,” said a top official at a leading Dubai insurer.

“Mandatory initiatives like health coverage and life will also benefit in the revenue mix of the industry as more expat-driven practices come to the UAE.”

ADNIC's big bold Saudi plans
It's not just within the UAE that the country's biggest insurers have been making a move. Abu Dhabi National Insurance Co. (ADNIC) is up for a majority stake in Saudi Arabia's Allianz Saudi Fransi Cooperative Insurance Company.
"Our progressing acquisition of the 51% stake solidifies our position as a leading composite insurer beyond our native UAE market - and into the wider GCC region," said Charalampos Mylonas, CEO of ADNIC. "We are excited about the next phase of our growth, particularly given our field presence in the two largest and fastest growing markets in the Middle East."

Are insurance premiums rising enough?

In August last, the UAE Central Bank made a forceful point to insurers – do away with the 50 per cent discounts being offered on motor insurance premiums. This was a wake up call for the sector, where the practice had been to offer the steepest discounts to retain clients rather than on what this would do for their motor lines. The majority of insurers were hurting over the discounting practice, which was not confined to motor alone.

In these 12 months, some measure of stability has reappeared in insurers’ motor portfolios vis-à-vis the claims made on them. Another year of further firming up beckons in this category.

Unless a major correction happens due to unforeseen circumstances, the current rates will remain sustainable.

- Faisal Abbas of Continental International Group

Sukoon Insurance in its report after the third quarter results said the UAE Central Bank diktat to the industry was ‘very welcomed and expected to bring more stability to the pricing environment’.

Faisal Abbas is Vice-President for Employee Benefits and General Insurance Team at Continental International Group. He reckons the removal of discounts on motor premiums was just what the industry needed.

“The increased motor premiums from 2023 are quite sustainable, at least for the foreseeable future,” said Abbas. “The hike done by almost every insurer, is in response to the directives of the Insurance Authority (at the UAE Central Bank)..

“Unless a major correction happens due to unforeseen circumstances, the current rates will remain sustainable.

“Heading into 2024, there is an uptrend in premium prices across categories, more evident in individual medical and SME corporate insurances.

“This trend is part of price corrections from the beginning of 2023, wherein about two-thirds of insurers revised their premiums, increasing them by up to 20 per cent.

“For instance, the inflation-related increase in healthcare costs will prompt insurers to revise medical insurance premiums. If inflation is controlled in 2024, premium prices across categories could be kept in check.”

Get asset-liability mix in order
"The problem at insurance companies relates to asset-liability mismatch. If the mandate is to invest only in fixed deposits or short-term fixed income instruments, insurance companies will never be able to make a profit. They have to have a better mix of assets that yield higher returns along with a better mix of insurance policies..."

- Senior UAE insurer

Will 2024 see universal medical cover?

As another year dawns, the biggest expectation among insurance industry stakeholders is whether UAE will bring in mandatory health insurance for all. If that happens, insurers will have just what’s needed for another burst of growth opportunities.

Already, their medical portfolio has been swelled with each new resident taking up quarters in the country. “But compulsory medical insurance for every resident, working on not, would be the ultimate boost,” said an insurer. “With the reforms happening in the resident visas, end-of-service gratuity categories, medical cover for all is then a natural progression. The entire resident population stands to benefit – and so would the insurance sector.”