Investors brace for biggest IPO since Alibaba

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A highly anticipated listing by National Commercial Bank (NCB), Saudi Arabia's largest lender, has seen strong demand as the window for subscriptions came to a close late Sunday, setting the stage to become the world's second-largest offering this year.

The share sale of 500 million shares -- equivalent to a quarter of the bank's capital -- is also the biggest in the region's history, and is expected to generate $6 billion. It's a figure that trumps the Arab world's previous record of $4.96 billion, when port operator DP World went public in 2007.

The retail tranche, which accounts for 15 percent, was as much as 16 times oversubscribed as of Sunday evening. The remaining 10 percent will go to the kingdom's public pension agency. Final results are to be formally announced within days.

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Morgan Stanley said in a note it foresees major institutional demand, and for the stock to begin trading on November 9.

Analysts have told CNBC the stock was priced cheaply at 45 Saudi riyals ($12), especially considering its peers and sector averages. Price-to-book for the industry was 2.2 times last year, compared to 2 times for NCB.

Sentiment among traders in the country's stock market, known as the Tadawul, took a knock with other global markets last month, but is still up 18.3 percent year-to-date.

Foreign investors were not allowed to take part in the offering. They can however access publicly-traded stocks through long-standing swap arrangements. Authorities have indicated their intention to gradually open up the market to international investors in the first half of 2015.

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NCB's IPO has also seen its share of controversy, igniting a very public debate as to whether the offer contravened Islamic law prohibiting usury. Despite disagreement among the country's most powerful religious voices, the bank's own Sharia-board gave the issue its approval.

The bank has however committed to converting to a full-fledged Islamic lender within the next five years, in yet another sign of an ongoing tug-of-war between conservatives and reformers.

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Meanwhile, in a review of Saudi Arabia's banking system published last Wednesday, credit rating agency Moody's noted despite the industry's strengths, "pressures on lending margins and higher regulatory limits on fees and commissions will constrain further improvements in profitability".

HSBC Saudi Arabia and Gulf International Bank (GIB) served as lead advisers in the offering.

- By CNBC's Yousef Gamal El-Din

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