Saudi 'mother of all IPOs' runs into Shariah storm

Saudi businessmen in front of the NCB building in Jedda, Saudi Arabia
Grapheast | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's biggest lender, National Commercial Bank (NCB), is gearing up for what is expected to be this year's second-biggest initial public offering -- and possibly the most controversial.

"NCB's IPO is the mother of all IPOs", John Sfakianakis, Regional Director at Ashmore Group, told CNBC.

"It's significant for the banking sector because it's the only bank of systemic significance that is going to be publicly traded and enhances transparency and governance".

NCB announced this month that it planned to raise $6 billion from the listing, with shares priced below analyst expectations at 45 Saudi Arabian riyals ($11). Of the 500 million shares on offer, 300 million will go to Saudi individuals and the remainder to the country's Public Pension Agency. The shares represent a quarter of the bank's capital.

With an implied valuation of $24 billion, NCB is one of the largest banks in the Middle East, and the last of 12 Saudi banks to go public.

Regulations prevent foreigners from participating in the IPO, which will begin trading publicly after November 2. They can however access listed stocks through complex swap arrangements, a process that is expected to be phased out as the kingdom prepares to gradually open its equity market to the world in the first half of 2015.

Perhaps more contentious is that the IPO has been criticized by religious scholars as usury – generating income from interest -- being forbidden in Islam. Prominent opposition came directly from the Kingdom's most influential religious voice, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh. The heated debate is also reflected across national newspapers and social media.

NCB's own Sharia advisory council had no objections after a detailed study, as the lender revealed in a formal statement published in Arabic on its official website. "After much thought and deliberations, the bank considers the IPO in the stocks of the National Commercial Bank to be acceptable from a Shariah perspective," the statement read.

The bank also committed to converting into a full-scale Islamic lender within five years at most.

Regional equity markets were not spared from the turbulence in financial markets last week, with Saudi's benchmark TASI losing 12 percent. It's still up close to 15 percent so far this year, with analysts telling CNBC sustained lower oil prices would be catalyst for lower valuations.

OPEC's kingpin oil exporter is already in the spotlight as global markets attempt to guess how policymakers will respond to a myriad of competing interests driving oil prices.