Saudi insurance market remains tight

The crowded insurance sector in Saudi Arabia has come under pressure with low penetration rates and rising costs, highlighting the difficulties for smaller firms in the industry to maintain market share or grow their business.

Competition is keen in many segments of the insurance sector while penetration rates are well below international averages. Per capita spending on insurance products last year totalled only $218, just a third of the global average, while penetration rates were around 1% at the end of 2013, compared to the global rate of 6.5%, according to a report by Albilad Capital.

The Saudi market remains dominated by compulsory products, with medical and automotive insurance accounting for well over 75% of all gross written premiums. Other products such as personal health or life coverage make up only a fraction of total policies issued and premiums written.  

Cramped sector

While industry penetration is still far below the desired levels, a stronger economic performance in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region may lead to a greater take-up of insurance. Penetration rates across GCC member states could double by 2017 thanks to longer life expectancies and compulsory health insurance programmes, according to investment bank Alpen Capital.

A similar region-wide poll of industry leaders conducted by the Qatar Financial Centre found that three-quarters of those surveyed predicted that the growth rate of regional insurance premiums would exceed that of GDP over the next 12 months. Most of the executives who responded to the questionnaire suggested that personal lines of insurance were set to benefit from additional compulsory coverage requirements, while commercial insurance would receive a boost from new infrastructure and construction projects.

Although there is opportunity for expansion, the Saudi insurance sector is cramped. A few large and generally well-capitalised companies, which are better placed than their smaller rivals to maintain tight margins and carry losses on their books, dominate much of the market.

The fierce competition amongst market players led to mispriced insurance products in 2013, which in turn led to large losses for some insurers. This prompted the regulator, The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), to issue a new pricing mechanism and commissioned all insurers to undergo an actuarial review of the technical pricing of both medical and motor insurance.

“We think the changes in the industry will limit the price war through price efficiency and will force some insurers to exit the market or merge with each other as many insurers’ accumulated losses reach up to 75% of company share capital,” said the Albilad Capital report.  

Replenishing capital

In contrast to the QFC forecast, a report issued in May by insurance sector ratings firm A.M. Best said the insurance market is expected to slow down in 2014. Nonetheless, it still remains above historical levels. The highly competitive nature of the Saudi market was pressuring many operators and eating into earnings and capital. According to the firm’s director, Mahesh Mistry, the challenge of high costs and payouts in the tight market have strained not just underwriting performance but also capital adequacy, which has been in decline in recent years.

“Many insurers have seen a significant erosion of capital and surplus over the past two years. The market needs an overall capital injection to replenish capital levels, while the process of infusing capital needs to be accelerated,” Mistry said.

Many insurers have undergone a significant reserve strengthening. In late April, SAMA issued a statement saying it had received and processed applications from 10 insurance firms to raise their capital. Of these, two were given final approval to lift their capitalisation rates, a further five were granted initial approval and three were rejected. SAMA stated, however, that the rejections were due to shortcomings in the firms’ applications and the agency would reassess the decisions if and when new applications were lodged.  

Towards cooperation

Another avenue open to Saudi insurance firms is closer cooperation between companies to share both the risks and earnings, Jay Sharma, the CEO of Marsh Saudi Arabia Insurance and Reinsurance Brokers told OBG that another avenue open to Saudi insurance firms is coinsurance of certain risks, which could stem at least some of the flow of premiums currently leaving the country.

“If companies can get comfortable to co-insure more of the larger ones, then the market could reduce the dependence on facultative insurance on these risks, hence keeping more premium in the Kingdom,” said Sharma.

However, Sharma acknowledges while this does occur in some circumstances, it would not be commonplace in the short term as the market is particularly fragmented and competitive.
Insurers, Insureds and Treaty Reinsurers would have to become more comfortable with the concept of coinsurance and insurers would have to make a concerted effort to cooperate more effectively to make it work successfully.

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