The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia currently boasts the fastest-growing economy of all G20 countries. With such strong results and clear ambitious goals set for the Kingdom, it is yet to be seen just how much growth it can enjoy. Can the country overcome barriers to eventually become an internationally competitive financial hub?
The driving force behind much of the economic growth in Saudi Arabia is the country’s roadmap ‘Vision 2030’. Introduced in 2016 by Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, the initiative aims to simultaneously promote economic growth and diversify the economy – drastically reducing its reliance on oil.
During the recent G20 Summit in New Delhi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Economy and Planning, Faisal bin Fadhil Alibrahim, explained that the Saudi economy achieved a growth rate of 8.7 per cent in 2022 – the fastest of all G20 countries.
He also revealed that the Kingdom is currently seeing strong economic and financial performance, with non-oil activities growing by 6.1 per cent in the second quarter of the current year (compared to Q2 2022) – highlighting the success of the country’s economic diversification efforts.
Fintech Saudi efforts and successes
One key area of focus for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the growth of its fintech sector. One of the core goals of Vision 2030 in this respect is to increase the number of fintechs operating in the country to over 500 by 2030.
To facilitate this aim, Fintech Saudi was launched in 2018 by the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) and the Capital Market Authority (CMA) – hoping to significantly promote the growth of the fintech industry across the entirety of Saudi Arabia. At Seamless Saudi Arabia, Nezar Alhaidar, managing director for Fintech Saudi, explained how the growth of the fintech sector had progressed in the last five years: “When we started in Fintech Saudi in 2018, we identified only 10 fintechs operating in the market.
“By 2022, when we issued our annual report, we found that there were 147 operating fintechs under the umbrella of the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia, as well as non-regulated activity. For today, we have over 180 operating fintechs in Saudi Arabia.
“The ultimate aim is to achieve over 525 operating fintechs in Saudi Arabia; create over 18,000 jobs in the fintech domain; accumulate over 12billion Saudi Riyal of investment in fintech companies; as well as generate 13billion Saudi Riyal in Saudi GDP.”
But as Saudi Arabia gears up to strengthen its economy, questions remain over whether other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can match its ambitions, or even support regional growth.
GCC collaboration: Room to improve?
Also on stage at Seamless Saudi Arabia, Renier Lemmens, group chief executive officer at Riyadh-based payment and commerce technology firm Geidea, explained why collaboration between regulators based in different countries within the region is not only important – but crucial.
“The UK has approximately the same number of inhabitants as across the whole GCC. Imagine for a moment that we split the UK into seven, eight or nine completely separate geographies: each with its own regulation, its own customer base and its own on-soil requirements for data centres.
“This would mean that fintechs active in Edinburgh couldn’t really sell in Birmingham or Manchester. One active in Cornwall couldn’t sell in London; while fintechs in London couldn’t sell anywhere else in the country. The UK would have seven different fintech ecosystems with seven different regulatory regimes.
“in payments, it is as if you’re building seven different companies from scratch.”
“The reason for putting it like that is that most people would say that that is nonsensical. You don’t build a vibrant, regional fintech ecosystem in this way. Yet that’s exactly what is happening across the GCC today.”
Lemmens also discussed why the existing regulatory landscape makes it difficult for firms like Geidea to expand their offerings cross-border: “The fact is that if we are active in Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t give us any benefit whatsoever from a regulatory or infrastructure perspective for being active in Oman, in the UAE or any other country in the region for that matter – and vice versa.
“For us in payments, it is as if you’re building seven different companies from scratch.
“The ecosystem here is still at a stage of development in which there is a lot of room for more deliberate regional collaboration. Saudi Arabia has a big role to play in taking the lead in that respect.”
Harbouring collaboration across the GCC
Cross-border regulatory friction could prove to slow progress for not only the GCC as a whole, but also for Saudi Arabia. While Vision 2030 continues to help grow the country’s economy and fintech ecosystem, cross-border collaboration with other countries could prove to be mutually beneficial and drive growth even further and faster.
Saudi Arabia already boasts the largest population in the GCC, with over 30 million inhabitants. However, if fintech and tech firms could also interact with the populations of the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, they could reach well over 20 million more. Creating a regional GCC market could not only greatly enhance potential customer bases, but also encourage faster innovation and economic growth.
While regulators from different countries in the region haven’t been able to engage in meaningful collaboration; a suggestion of a more unified approach has come in the form of cross-border payments. The GCC Cross-border Payment System (AFAQ) is a regional payments system provided by the Gulf Payments Company. AFAQ looks to execute financial transactions in GCC local currencies in real-time while ensuring low fees – all within a safe, secure, and stable ecosystem.
AFAQ continues to onboard a growing number of commercial banks based across the GCC onto the system; with the Bank of Bahrain, Bank of Kuwait, Qatar National Bank and CITI Bank Kuwait just a selection of a wide range of entities already involved.
However, it is yet to be seen whether significant regulatory collaboration will become a reality in the near future. Overall, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is making strong moves towards diversifying its economy and is already displaying a fast rate of growth. While challenges will exist for the Kingdom to contend with, the first steps it has taken towards its goals for 2030 are certainly extremely positive.