Banking in the Middle East

by Barclays Wealth International on May 24, 2010

Moving to the Middle East?

Your guide to expatriate banking services in the Middle East


The Middle East commonly refers to the areas of Southwestern Asia, plus Egypt. In recent years, the Middle East has remained a region subject to economic, political and religious sensitivity. The Middle East is the historical home of three of the world’s largest religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Middle Eastern economies present a picture of extremes, from countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have benefited from rich natural reserves, to poorer countries including Gaza and Yemen. According to CIA statistics, all of the nations that make up the collective ‘Middle East’ have maintained positive economic growth.

Throughout most of the Middle East region, the official language is Arabic, although English is widely spoken, especially in business matters. In Israel the national language is Hebrew.

Units of currency

  • Bahrain – the Bahraini Dinar (BHD), divided into 1,000 fils. As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately 0.59 BHD to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • Egypt – the Egyptian pound (EGP), divided into 100 piastres. As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately £8.58 EGP to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • Israel – the New Israeli Shekel (ILS). As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately ₪ 5.87 ILS to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • Oman – the Omani Rial (OMR), divided into 1 000 baizas. As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately 0.60 OMR to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • Qatar – the Qatari riyal (QAR), divided into 100 dirhams, As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately 5.71 QAR to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • Turkey – the New Turkish Lira (TRY). As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately 2.37 TRY to £1 GBP (pound sterling).
  • UAE – the UAE dirham (AED), divided into 100 fils. As of April 2010, the exchange rate was approximately 5.76 AED to £1 GBP (pound sterling).

Banks in the Middle East

Central banks

  • Central Bank of Bahrain ­
  • Central Bank of Egypt
  • Central Bank of Israel
  • Central Bank of Oman
  • Central Bank of Qatar
  • Central Bank of Turkey
  • Central Bank of the UAE

Foreign banks operating in the Middle East

  • Arab Bank
  • ABN AMRO Bank NV
  • Agricole Indosuez
  • Bank Saderat Iran
  • Bank of Baroda
  • Banque Banorabe
  • Barclays Bank
  • BNP Paribas
  • Citibank Commercial International Bank CIB –
  • Egyptian American Bank
  • Habib Bank AG Zurich
  • HSBC Bank
  • Lloyds TSB
  • Mashreqbank
  • Société Generale
  • Standard Chartered Bank
  • United Bank Limited (UBL)
  • WestLB

Bank opening times in the Middle East

Banks in the Middle East in general open from 8am to 1pm (Sunday to Thursday), with most banks closing on a Friday. Opening times do vary between countries, with some banks offering extended opening hours in the afternoon or on Saturdays.

Banking services in the Middle East

Throughout the Middle East, the major towns and cities are well served by local and international bank branches, offering a comprehensive range of banking services, products and accounts. In more rural areas, banking facilities on offer can vary considerably, and in addition to banking facilities being available at limited opening times, the range of services offered is likely to be restricted.

With the growth in popularity and range of online banking services, in addition to telephone banking, account holders with these facilities should be able to effectively operate their accounts throughout the Middle East, whether based in an urban or rural area, subject to phone and internet connection.

The use of credit, debit and cash cards is commonplace in the Middle East, although cash is still more popular than either cards or cheques for everyday transactions.

In most countries, bank statements and correspondence can be provided in either Arabic or English (or Hebrew in Israel). In many of the main bank branches, multi-lingual counter services are likely to be available.

The main types of bank account in the Middle East

In general, the major banks located in the Middle East offer the same banking services and accounts that are found in the UK. The main types of bank accounts offered are;

  • Current accounts – used for daily banking. They typically offer low rates of interest, with easy access to account funds. Current accounts may include an ATM/debit card, a chequebook and possibly a credit card on request
  • Savings accounts – generally offer higher rates of interest than current accounts, but may offer limited access to funds, and interest penalties may be incurred for making account withdrawals. Savings accounts may offer either fixed or variable rates of interest, and may be fixed for a period of time (e.g., two years)
  • Deposit accounts – typically offer higher interest rates than current or savings accounts, but in return, access to funds may be limited or not available until the maturity date of the account. Deposit accounts may not be suitable if you require regular access to funds

Many of the major banks offer accounts in a range of major foreign currencies, such as pound sterling or US dollars.

Opening a bank account when you arrive in the Middle East

To open an account with a bank in a Middle East country, you will need to provide a range of official documentation to prove your right of residence and personal identification. Typically, accepted forms of documentation include;

  • A verified copy of your passport
  • A copy of your residence permit (if applicable)
  • A recent utility bill
  • A letter of reference / employment from your current employer
  • A recent bank statement and letter of reference from your current bank

Opening a bank account before you arrive in the Middle East

An alternative to opening a local account is to open an international bank account in the Middle East before you arrive. In addition to providing you with access to a secure range of international banking services, you will also have access to a range of savings and bank accounts, which include online banking facilities, international payments and online money transfer services.

International accounts can be opened before you move to the Middle East, and provide expats living and working there with a convenient and comprehensive way to manage their finances abroad.

Currency exchange facilities in the Middle East

There are bureaux de change and banking facilities at the major airports, many of which are open 24 hours a day, but typically they offer low exchange rates. You can change foreign currencies at many hotels, but the exchange rates are usually uncompetitive. To find the best exchange rates, look for city centre bureaux de change.

ATMs in the Middle East

ATMs are widely available in the major towns and cities throughout the Middle East, and generally accept a wide variety of both regional and international cards. However, expect to pay a fee for using ATMs operated by banks other than your own. Withdrawals using debit cards are typically limited to daily cash withdrawal limits set by the banks, and to make cash withdrawals with a debit card, you will need to have funds available in your account.

Many machines provide instructions in both Arabic and English (and Hebrew in Israel).

Credit and charge cards

Visa and MasterCard are widely issued and accepted, with American Express and Diners Club accepted to a lesser extent. If you withdraw cash from ATMs using a credit card, expect to pay a fee.

Remember that you can often haggle over prices – except if you pay with a credit card. In that case you must pay the first price the seller demands, and there’s likely to be a surcharge applied to credit card transactions.


Cheques issued by banks in the Middle East are similar in structure to cheques issued by UK banks. When writing cheques, it’s important to remember that Arab names can be very similar, especially in their diminutive form, so you should always write the name in full of an Arab recipient.

Managing your account

With the exception of Israel, where overdrafts are commonplace, it is a serious matter in the Middle East to become overdrawn on your bank account. An unauthorised overdraft will attract steep penalties, and issuing a cheque that ‘bounces’ is viewed as a criminal offence. The police and the creditor may be contacted, prosecutions are common and sentences are harsh. If there is any danger at all that you might have insufficient funds in your account to cover your payments, you must notify your bank immediately.

Money transfers to and from the Middle East

Electronic money transfers, both national and international, are widely offered by the major banks in the Middle East. In addition to the transfer and payment services offered by banks, wide selections of specialist money transfer businesses operate in this market. It is worth researching the charge structures applied to transfers beforehand, to ensure you secure a competitive rate, as both fees and rates offered can vary considerably.

Currency regulations relating to the import and export of currencies are subject to change and vary between Middle Eastern countries. You should check with the national bank and Customs Department for the relevant countries for full details on current limits that apply, and familiarise yourself with the necessary reporting requirements of each country you intend to travel to and from.

Bank charges in the Middle East

Many banking services offered by banks in the Middle East will incur charges, ranging from small monthly administration fees for some bank accounts, to charges levied on individual transactions or transfers, such as money transfers and cash withdrawals. As in the UK, there is competition between banks to attract new customers, so it may be possible to take advantage of special deals and rates that are offered to new customers.

Other potential charges applied to accounts include one-off charges for the issue of debit or credit cards, or for the replacement of lost or stolen bank cards or cheque books. Individual banks will be able to provide you with a complete charge structure that applies to the products and services on offer.

Banking in the Middle East – other information

Banking ombudsman

If you have a complaint against a bank and cannot resolve it, you should contact the central bank of the relevant country.

More information on banking with Barclays Wealth International

For further information about the benefits of opening an International Account before you move to the Middle East, you can speak to a specialist adviser at Barclays Wealth International by calling +44 (0) 141 352 3902.

Alternatively, find out more about the overseas banking services and expat banking that are available from Barclays Wealth International.

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