What will fintech in the Middle East region bring in 2021? The ongoing pandemic will unfortunately play a large part in the global economy but fintech will have its own unique aspects.
Here are some potential predictions for the new year from The FinTech Times with respect to the Middle East region:
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES WILL CONTINUE TO BE IMPLEMENTED DESPITE COVID-19
The wider economic development strategies, not just visible within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)) but beyond just as in Egypt with Egypt Vision 2030 will continue its acceleration and implementations. As commented by The FinTech Times, economic development and diversification is playing a key role across much of the Middle East, in particular within the GCC. 2021 will see much of that continue, as it marks a decade left in terms of milestones for much of them, such as in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Vision 2030 or Bahrain with Bahrain Economic Vision 2030, to further foster the strategies that will embrace and promote innovation in the fintech ecosystem and wider economy.
Infrastructure – both physical and digital will continue to happen to help support the various economic development strategies. For instance, countries like the UAE, which is known as a leader in digital transformation in not just the Arab World but also globally, will further advance in that part. Leaders in fintech and wider financial services in the Middle East such as Bahrain, the UAE (both Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and Israel will most likely continue innovating and fostering their respective ecosystems.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia will continue with their ongoing economic development projects, which much of it is improving its own ecosystem via its newly launched National Strategy for Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) (NSDAI), which the Kingdom sees it eventually contributing $135 billion to its gross domestic product (GDP) as well as being a leader in it as well.
2021 will most likely see further regulatory frameworks, sandboxes, blockchain and cryptocurrency projects, and other initiatives to promote fintech’s infrastructure ecosystem to continue to be announced. For instance, in 2020 exciting news that came about seemed endless – from Oman’s sandbox with the Oman Central Bank (OCB) to Saudi Arabia’s big data and AI strategy to the UAE Central Bank’s new fintech office to Egypt’s new banking laws – as well as other potential announcements or developments such as with Turkey’s Istanbul Finance Centre project or maybe even a national AI strategy for Israel.
In addition, a sign of the environment growing has been fintech unicorn announcements in the region – both with Egypt’s Fawry and Saudi Arabia’s STC Pay. 2021 could potentially see further companies enter the market – boosting the startup and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the space; with regards to unicorns the new year could maybe see another one. It could be the next Israeli-born Payoneer or in terms of wider tech the next Souq.com (acquired by Amazon.com) or Careem (acquired by Uber).
PAYMENTS AND CONTACTLESS WILL THRIVE
This appears to be a general global phenomenon – even before 2020 and COVID-19. However, what 2020 showed is that paytech and the wider contactless experience will remain.
In the Middle East and Africa (MEA), one in nine transactions at point of sale (POS) are now contactless. Mastercard increased its contactless payment by more than 66 per cent to $136 million across MEA. Prior to the pandemic, last year, Mastercard saw a 200 percent increase in contactless payment in the region. Globally, contactless by 2025 is expected to grow to $18 billion, doubling to what it is now this year.
Checkout.com published a report that polled more than 5,000 consumers in September 2020 in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Pakistan. Across the eight countries, which overall had consistent scores amongst them, showed that 47 per cent of consumers say they expect to shop online more frequently over the next year (whereby only 15 per cent expect their online shopping frequency to decline while the remaining 38 per cent expect it to remain about the same as now).
Generally, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, payments, transfers and remittances is significant, where fintechs in the region, around 85 per cent of the entire fintech companies, operate within that.
ISRAEL AND THE REGION VIA THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS AND A NEW AMERICAN PRESIDENT
The Abraham Accords, signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain (later others such as Sudan and Morocco formally recognising Israel) is starting to see fintech, financial services and wider digitalisation opportunities. End of 2020, despite it being very recent, saw a range of memorandum of understandings (MOU) and other initiatives to link the countries in the Arab world with Israel.
For example, Bank Hapoalim, one of the largest banks in Israel signed MOUs with the UAE’s two premier financial centres – Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM)s. There was also a large Israeli delegation that recently went to GITEX, a major trade show (also significant in its own right for being held during the pandemic as part of Dubai’s reopening to tourists). 2021 will continue to see further developments in trade and investment.
In the USA, President-elected Joe Biden and any of his new policies could potentially impact the fintech and wider financial services and tech space. The Middle East and the United States of America have generally strong trade relations, such as countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel – to name a few. Generally, it is perceived that fintech overall could be positive but could also have its challenges in a post-President Donald Trump world. As the world’s largest economy and biggest player in fintech (home to around 9,000 fintechs), it can have an effect across the world including the Middle East. Trade and investment flows in fintech and wider tech have been seen in 2020 between the USA and the Middle East, such as with Abu-Dhabi’s Mubadala investing in US-based Silver Lake. Also, the Middle East, particularly Dubai, houses many large multinationals’ MEA offices – such as in financial services like JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch and in tech like Google and Apple.
EVENTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST WILL CONTINUE LEADING THE MICE INDUSTRY AND DUBAI EXPO 2020
In parts of the Middle East, particularly in the UAE, the global meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) industry slowly started to happen again in person in a hybrid model. This is pretty rare as much of the world remains in various lockdowns due to the pandemic. 2021, if conditions remain the same, could see parts of the Middle East being one of the few in the world to continue hosting hybrid events. End of the year saw Finnovex, Seamless Middle East, AI Everything X Restart Dubai Summer Conference, GITEX, and Singapore Fintech Festival (SFF)’s Dubai satellite event all happen via a hybrid model in Dubai.
Pending other countries and their COVID situation, as well as the vaccines, globally as whole in 2021 can see the return of not only the MICE industry but even business travel as a whole. Parts of the Middle East like in Dubai have been one of the first and it looks like the Middle East can continue that trajectory to be the example and benchmark for the rest of world to open safely in the new year in a post-COVID world.
While 2021 will be a spotlight for the Middle East as it continues to host hybrid events and recharge its MICE sector, end of 2021 will especially be a focal point for the region. The main reason is Dubai will be hosting the world’s largest gathering of people, a World’s Expo, Expo 2020 Dubai – scheduled now to be held from 1st October 2021 to 31st March 2022 due to the pandemic. Expo 2020, now more than ever, with its theme of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability will be key to celebrating humanity and the challenges and optimism we all have during the troubling times of 2020. In addition, digital innovations, which fintech plays a key part of in general, will have an opportunity to showcase current and future technologies and aspirations. Host UAE, whom themselves have been a leader in digital transformation, will have an opportunity to showcase that alongside other country participants.
FINTECH HUBS, CATALYSTS, ASSOCIATIONS AND OTHER SUPPORT MECHANISMS WILL CONTINUE TO BE IMPORTANT
Despite going virtual due to the pandemic, large accelerator, fintech/tech hubs and other fintech catalysts such as the likes of Dubai’s DIFC Fintech Hive, Abu Dhabi’s HUB 71, Saudi Arabia’s Fintech Saudi, Qatar’s Qatar Fintech Hub, Bahrain Fintech Bay, Israel’s Fintech-Aviv and Jordan Fintech Bay as well as Flat6Labs, Fintech Egypt, Astrolabs, Oman Startup Hub, Oman Blockchain Society, Egyptian Fintech Association, Turkey’s FINTR, Kuwait Banking Association, Africa Fintech Network (AFN) and MENA Fintech Association – to name a few – will most likely continue with their relevant activities (whether it be virtual, physical or hybrid), startup support in the fintech and wider tech and startup space, as well overall catalysts and champions of fintech in their respective communities. 2021 will most likely see headliners across the various entities mentioned in regard to fintech support. These hubs, catalysts and associations are key implementation support arms that are helping the region’s wider economic development and growth particularly in fintech.
BANKS FURTHER EMBRACING FINTECH AND OTHER INTERESTING ANNOUCEMENTS
Banks in the Middle East, which historically in many parts of the region are unbanked, will probably continue to embrace fintech and wider digital transformation. Most likely there will be other neobanks launched by other banks in the Middle East, as what Dubai-headquartered Emirates NBD has done with Liv Bank or Bahrain-headquartered Bank ABC with Ila Bank.
In terms of banking as a whole, 2020 was interesting with the announcement of Saudi banks Samba Financial Group to merge with Jeddah headquartered National Commercial Bank (commonly known as NCB). Both were already one of the top ten largest banks in the GCC in terms of assets but the combined company will create one of MEA’s largest banks. 2021 can bring other interesting developments in the Middle East’s banking sector.
To note, Islamic Finance will continue to grow and fintech has a strong and growing component of that. The Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region continues to be an important player in an industry worth more than $2.1 trillion, fuelled by the growing popularity of Islamic Banking. Sharia-compliant assets represent 14 per cent of total banking assets in MEASA and 25 per cent of banking assets in the GCC. With regards to fintech, there are at least 127 Islamic fintech firms that offer Sharia-compliant financial products, where the UAE ranks third with at least 15 (behind Malaysia at second and the UK at number one) and Saudi Arabia at fifth with 9. 2021 will most likely see growth of fintechs that are sharia-compliant as well.
Finally, despite the initial optimism, as with the rest of the world, the global economy will continue its long recovery from the effects of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. This will depend on factors mainly now with the vaccines mainly from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V that could be approved for treatment and distributed globally. Also, countries particularly Lebanon will most likely have a slower recovery due to other economic factors that hit it before COVID-19 in addition to the Beirut blast that happened in early August 2020.
Nevertheless, despite the coronavirus continuing well into 2021, fintech next year will carry on and will bring about it its own developments, both on a global scale as well as those unique to the Middle East region. Let us all hope that in a year from now the 2022 fintech and wider economic outlook will no longer have to mention pandemic nor coronavirus ever again.