A global trade hub and home to regulators with big fintech ambitions, the Middle East could be the next location for trade finance technology to bloom. Sanne Wass reports.


“We are just getting started.” Those are the words that first meet visitors to Saudi Fintech’s website, an initiative set up by the country’s monetary authority in May to “transform the kingdom into an innovative fintech hub with a thriving ecosystem”.

The phrase accurately reflects where fintech in the Middle East is at – only the beginning.

According to consulting firm Accenture, the Middle East had, as of January 2017, only attracted 1% of the US$50bn raised globally by fintech startups since 2010.

But this is set to change. Fintech firms are sprouting up, and global banks and software firms are starting to see the region as a perfect location to test and roll out new trade technology.

Standard Chartered, for one, announced in late-August that it had chosen the UAE to kick off an “industry-first client pilot” for blockchain-based smart guarantees in trade finance, together with Siemens Financial Services and blockchain firm TradeIX.

In the same month, Finastra, one of the world’s largest financial software companies, announced that it had joined Bahrain’s accelerator programme Bahrain Fintech Bay, with the goal to expand its open innovation platform FusionFabric.cloud to local fintech startups. Wissam Khoury, Finastra’s managing director for the Middle East and Africa, said then that it was an ideal time to join “as the Bahrain fintech scene heats up”.

HSBC, meanwhile, has put considerable focus on the Middle East for piloting a range of technologies to digitise, automate and streamline trade and supply chain finance.

For example, the bank recently launched a new supply chain finance platform in the region together with Kyriba, a financial software provider. And last year, when HSBC and IBM introduced an AI solution to automate and digitise trade finance documentation, they selected the UAE as one of the first countries (together with Hong Kong) to go live in.

The bank also recently rolled out its trade transaction tracker, a smart-phone-based application, which was first piloted in Qatar.

The Middle East will also be the next region of focus for HBSC’s blockchain initiatives. In May, the bank, together with ING, conducted its first live, commercial trade finance transaction on blockchain. This was done together with agrifood trading giant Cargill for a cargo of soybeans exported from Argentina to Malaysia.

According to Sunil Veetil, HSBC’s regional head of trade and receivables finance, the announcement created huge interest among clients in the Middle East, some of which HSBC are now looking to involve in the next stage of the trial.


Change from the top

One advantage the region brings is location: the Middle East is growing in importance as a trade hub between the east and west. This makes it an “ideal place” for testing new trade technology, particularly blockchain, Veetil tells GTR.

“If you look at the region, there is a huge reliance on trade, so there are huge benefits that our clients can derive from this technology,” he says.

Another benefit is the keen approach from the region’s regulators. When launching its blockchain pilot programme in the UAE, TradeIX’s CFO Daniel Cotti specifically quoted the government’s “enormous drive for digitalisation and blockchain” as one important reason for choosing that location over others.

Veetil at HSBC, too, emphasises this as a “uniqueness” of the region: that there’s a considerable push for change from the regulators. So while Middle Eastern countries are still “slightly behind their Western counterparts” when it comes to fintech development, he expects the pace of change to happen very quickly.

“When there is a push from the top, things do get done in this part of the world,” he says. “There is currently a large focus on blockchain, fintechs are opening up, banks are encouraging fintech and accelerators, and we have our own hubs where we work with locally groomed startups. Definitely I can see that interest is very high in the region, within the government and the regulators. And they are quite nimble, they move quickly.”

He adds that HSBC is currently in discussions with UAE regulators, who are keen to provide the necessary support for the bank’s blockchain initiative.

Much of this government-led push for fintech innovation has come about in light of the oil price collapse in mid-2014, which threw the need for diversification into stark relief across the GCC in particular. Governments have since initiated grand plans to drive growth outside of oil, with sectors such as aviation, tourism, trade, financial services and technology, being a big part of Mena countries’ transformation plans.

The UAE has thrown its weight behind fintech and blockchain more so than any other government in the region. In April, it launched its Emirates Blockchain Strategy, which seeks to transform 50% of government transactions into the blockchain platform by 2021. In doing so it expects to save AED11bn in transactions and documents processed routinely, 398 million printed documents annually and 77 million work hours every year. Meanwhile, Dubai has its own blockchain strategy, run by its Smart City Office.

The UAE is also home to two of the Middle East’s three fintech accelerator programmes, which have all seen the light of the day over the last year.

The first, Fintech Hive, kicked off in Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) in mid-2017. It saw 11 startups go through a 12-week programme, working closely with banking partners to create solutions in artificial intelligence, big data and analytics, mobile payments and roboadvisory.

Many financial institutions have been keen to join in. Fintech Hive’s partners include big players such as First Abu Dhabi Bank, Citi, Emirates NBD, HSBC, Mashreq, Standard Chartered and Visa.

Its establishment was followed by the launch of ADGM FinTech Innovation Centre in Abu Dhabi in late 2017, and then the central bank of Bahrain’s creation of Bahrain Fintech Bay earlier this year.

Many other moves across the region indicate that governments want to mark themselves as leaders in fintech.

A big chunk of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 is about digital transformation in fintech. In line with this plan, in February the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority signed a deal with Ripple, a US-based technology company, to help banks in the kingdom settle payments using blockchain technology.

In Bahrain, meanwhile, the central bank has introduced a comprehensive regulatory framework for fintech, including a sandbox for tech firms to test their innovations. Together with Bahrain Fintech Bay, the effort forms part of a “strategy towards positioning Bahrain as a regional leader in fintech”, according to Rasheed Mohammed Al Maraj, governor of the bank.


A missed opportunity?

The government attention towards fostering fintech is also driving interest from startups, both locally groomed firms and international fintech companies looking to the Middle East for new opportunities.

In the DIFC, the success of Fintech Hive’s first programme led to the announcement in May that it had decided to expand the scope for its 2018 programme to include insurtech, Islamic finance and regulatory technology (regtech). Three months later, it reported that it had received “overwhelming response”, getting more than 300 applications from around the world – three times more than in 2017.

Raja Al Mazrouei, executive vice-president of FinTech Hive at DIFC said at the time it was a “testament to the increasing demand for disruptive technologies in the region”.

Speaking to GTR, she says the programme has seen a big increase in the number of UAE-based fintechs among this year’s applicants, indicating that the local fintech landscape is growing. Meanwhile, the programme has also attracted applications from diverse international geographies, including the UK, India, the US and Nigeria. These firms, Al Mazrouei explains, typically already have a working prototype of their solution, but are interested in Fintech Hive to get help localising their offering.

“Startups come because they see an opportunity in the Middle East. The wider region has a very large unbanked and cash-driven population. So there is a huge drive for financial inclusion, as well as a push to go digital,” she says.

This also goes for trade finance fintech firms, albeit there may still be a long way to go for them to embrace the full potential of the trade finance market: it seems the growth of new financial technology in this space is one still driven mainly by banks.

“It’s still very early stages,” says Anand Nagaraj, CEO of Invoice Bazaar, adding that most fintech firms in the region have focused on payments and financial comparison platforms. Local companies Souqalmal and Yallacompare are examples of this trend.

Invoice Bazaar, a Dubai-based fintech firm, is one of a small number of fintechs in the region that are focused specifically on trade and supply chain finance. It launched its supply chain finance platform – an online marketplace where SMEs can sell their invoices for cash – in 2016.

Other firms operating in the same space are Jordan’s Liwwa and UAE-based Beehive. But overall, competition from non-bank players is still relatively low, Nagaraj says, adding that banks continue to capture a large part of that market.

One big challenge faced by trade finance fintech firms like Invoice Bazaar is fundraising, he explains. Local fintech investors lack knowledge about trade finance, while international ones lack knowledge about the Middle East. The fact that only a tiny percentage of global fintech investments go to the region is being felt.

“An opportunity is definitely being missed over here,” Nagaraj says.

Then comes the fact that many bankers are just not ready to take the leap away from a well-paid banking job into an uncertain world of fintech startups.

“In the Middle East, normally bankers are very well paid; especially if you are a senior trade finance banker, you are very well taken care of,” he says. “So a lot of people shy away from trying to start something new. The cost of setting up a business in the Middle East is quite high and there haven’t been too many people who have started and done well. So people like to keep the status quo.”

Nevertheless, the region has seen recent examples of bankers leaving their decades-long banking careers behind in favour of fintech. Nagaraj himself, for one, had been at Citi for almost 10 years when he decided to create Invoice Bazaar. He has since been joined by other ex-Citi bankers Ashok Balasubramanian and Sumit Rungta. Another new fintech solution, TradeAssets, a blockchain platform for distribution of trade finance assets, was launched in Dubai earlier this year by career bankers Lakshmanan Sankaran and Sumit Roy, both well-known to the local trade industry.

With the fast pace of change in the Middle East it surely won’t be long before many more bankers and investors see the value proposition in fintech and follow suit.


Standard Chartered and Siemens’ blockchain pilot

Standard Chartered and Siemens Financial Services in the UAE started building a solution for blockchain-based smart guarantees in trade finance in March, together with blockchain firm TradeIX. It is among a number of proof of concepts that Standard Chartered has conducted on TradeIX’s open platform – and one which it has now decided to pilot with the purpose of commercialisation.

Built on R3’s Corda framework, the solution will enable Siemens to digitise and automate its guarantee process – a traditionally paper-intensive business – for customers with large transaction volumes, from initiation of the bank guarantee to the claim handling. It utilises a decentralised ledger and auto-executing smart contracts to provide a streamlined communication tool between the guarantee issuer (in this case Siemens), the bank (Standard Chartered), and the beneficiary (Siemens’ customers). The pilot is expected to be
fully completed later this year.

“Unlike a letter of credit, which involves multiple parties, performance details and over 100 pages of documents, a commercial bank guarantee is a much simpler instrument to digitise,” Standard Chartered says in a statement.

According to Michael Bueker, CFO at Siemens in the Middle East, having such a digital trade finance solution “is an important step” toward making the company’s trade finance operations “smoother, faster and more efficient”.