Is Saudi Arabia Leading the Race for FinTech Financial Inclusion?
It can be hard to keep up with Fintech. Just as the sector appears to be settling into some form of pattern in the UK and USA, where the next notable round of innovation is widely expected to be the automation that is changing the industry, new markets and new centers are emerging.
One of these – and one that was thought to be rather unlikely until fairly recently – is Saudi Arabia. Though the Middle East has long had a promising fintech sector, this has largely been confined to Saudi’s smaller neighbor, UAE.
Now, a range of Saudi startups have raised large sums in seed capital, and seem poised to make a major impact on the industry. In this article, we’ll look at these recent success stories, and explore when they mean for Saudi’s nascent fintech sector.
Saudi Arabia: A New Frontier?
First, let’s take a look at those recent headlines. Back in April, a promising but relatively small Saudi fintech startup, Tamara, announced that it had raised $110 million for its Series A funding. This came as a real shock to industry, and with good reasons – not only was this the largest level of Series A funding ever raised by a Saudi startup, but it was the largest Series A ever raised by a middle eastern startup.
Perhaps the news shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, though. Observant investors noted that the Saudi fintech sector has been growing steadily over the past few years – from just 10 startups registered under the Fintech Saudi initiative in 2018, to a total of 155 in 2020. And with extra companies comes extra funding – from January to May this year, fintech startups based in Saudi Arabia raised almost $130 million, a whopping jump compared to the $23 million raised by the sector from 2015-2020.
This growth is also likely to continue in the medium term. This level of investment is proving to be an incentive for Western fintech startups, as well, who are now looking to the Middle East as a potential new market for their services. Whether they will be able to take advantage of the size of the market in the region will, however, depend on a number of factors.
As we will see, the biggest problem standing in the way of creating a dynamic Fintech sector in Saudi is not the demand for innovative banking services – that is certainly strong enough. Rather, it is a somewhat traditional banking sector that may be reluctant to open up to technology companies.
Growth Across the Region
Saudi certainly has some well-established models to follow when it comes to catalyzing fintech growth. Bahrain, for instance, is widely regarded as having some of the most fintech-friendly banking regulations in the world, and the sector in that company is growing rapidly. Similarly, Egypt is seen as a real growth market for the sector, given the country’s huge population and a government that seems to be supportive of novel approaches to small business finance.
In both of these countries, government support has been key to encouraging the fintech sector, and Saudi Arabia appears to have recognized this. The Fintech Saudi initiative is the flag bearer for this support, and was launched back in 2018 by the Saudi Central Bank. The bank partnered with the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) in the kingdom, which has played a pivotal role in providing investment funding for fintech startups.
The goals of these investments are certainly ambitious. The mission statement of the CMA states that it is tasked with “transforming Saudi Arabia into an innovative fintech hub with a thriving and responsible fintech ecosystem”. As part of this wide mandate, Fintech Saudi facilitates the licensing process for startups, connects entrepreneurs with investors, service providers, and banks, and has an accelerator program run by Flat6Labs.
This government support is, in turn, part of a broader change across the region, in which governments who were previously averse to change are embracing new ways of doing business. Just as the oil industry is changing, and becoming more transparent, so is the financial sector. And that will have impacts far beyond investors and bank staff because fintech might just be able to make banking truly inclusive.
Open Banking and Inclusion
If, as seems likely, Saudi Arabia becomes a leader in the fintech space, it will act not just as a catalyst for the development of fintech solutions across the region. It will also be the biggest test run yet of one of the central promises of fintech – that this technology can open up banking in a way never seen before.
On the one hand, Saudi Arabia seems like an unlikely place to be at the forefront of inclusive banking. The country is still very conservative and has some of the most secretive banking practices in the world. However, there are signs that the kingdom is open to change – both socially and in regard to the way it does business.
This has been overtly stated by Fintech Saudi, which is developing an open baking framework for the kingdom. Their aim, they say, is to force Saudi banks to be more open, and to share data about their activities more widely. This, in turn, will likely make it easier for under-represented groups in the country – women, most of all – to access banking services.
At the moment, many guest workers and women in the country are under-served by financial institutions, and by allowing them to open accounts it is hoped that the country can become more open generally. In addition, fintech can help these workers to make international payments more easily, sending money back home and sharing the benefits of the strident Saudi economy.
Of course, changing the way in which a conservative country runs its banking system is not going to be easy. The Fintech sector in the country, while attracting a lot of funding, will have to overcome some real challenges if it is going to succeed.
One of these is a skills gap. A recent report from Fintech Saudi, for instance, shows that hiring qualified talent was the primary challenge for 40% of startups in the fintech space. Without qualified workers to power the work of startups, it’s likely that these will either stall or be forced to move their activities (and their profits) elsewhere.
Secondly, there is the issue of cybersecurity. Saudi has been a major target of cyberattacks in recent years, many of which appear to have originated in Iran. While the average fintech startup might not be a target of global cyber-weapons, the sheer number of common cybersecurity risks that the average Saudi company experiences every year could be enough to deter some startups and investors from working in the country.
The Bottom Line
That’s not to say that these challenges don’t have solutions, of course. Open banking has progressed in two ways around the globe in recent years, either via regulators forcing traditional banks to embrace it and work with fintech startups (as is the case in the European Union) or (as we see in the US) incumbent banks opting to partner with open banking providers to keep pace with innovation.
If Saudi Arabia can do the same, while also recognizing that both talent acquisition and customer service are key to success in Fintech, there is no reason why it cannot emulate the success of its neighbors, and become the next global fintech hub.
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