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By Ghinwa Baradhi, CIO, HSBC–Middle East, North Africa And Turkey
Those of us who live and work in the Middle East will be all too familiar with that reaction. The popular perception is that our daily lives are dominated by the religious, political, gender and ideological divides which are prevalent in the headlines and news bulletins.
But as the CIO for HSBC’s Middle East, North Africa and Turkey area (MENAT) I am acutely aware how these issues often overshadow the fact that overall, this is a sophisticated market, where our customers avidly embrace the latest technologies to make their personal, commercial and corporate banking experiences simpler, better and faster.
Equally, I know that within my region the landscape varies. My base is in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which has a highly advanced cyber infrastructure that enables us to offer HSBC customers products and services that are at the cutting edge of consumer banking technology. According to the latest research conducted by Google, the UAE ranks number one in global smartphone penetration at 74 percent. The opportunities to reach customers through digital channels are endless.
For example, customers in the UAE can apply for a personal loan online and receive a decision within minutes, rather than days. We are launching a cloud-based on-boarding application to submit documents electronically rather than customers physically coming into a branch. In July, HSBC UAE introduced Touch ID log on to mobile banking for customers with Apple devices, as well as Samsung Pay.
Our relationship managers use handheld devices with advanced functionality when they visit clients in their offices so they bring the bank to our customers and help them transact in real time.
However, this isn’t replicated in every country across the region; it’s fair to say that overall the maturity levels vary considerably and in some cases the perception of what’s possible isn’t supported by what’s actually available.
Sometimes people in Middle East tell me that they’re now using Blockchain, but when pressed it turns out that this is limited to Bitcoin transactions
It is fair to say that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are leading the pack in banking technology, with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman are also following suit. The picture from other parts of the Arab world is mixed and that’s where the main challenges are.
Take Blockchain for example, HSBC is a leader in the banking industry for facilitating international trade and we are also highly active in R3, the consortium developing Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) a successor to Blockchain that allows everyone in a trade chain to see information relevant to their part in the transaction.
Sometimes people in Middle East tell me that they’re now using Blockchain, but when pressed it turns out that this is limited to Bitcoin transactions. Though the technology is there to trade using DLT, there are varying levels of maturity in the banking industry globally in terms of adoption. In China, HSBC now uses Optical Character Recognition or OCR. This technology scans and processes customer documents filled out by hand in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters. It has dramatically speeded up processing times and eliminated errors caused by misreading handwriting.
Clearly OCR could be adapted to process Arabic script, but as with other services in use in many HSBC markets like cloud technology and biometrics, the playing field is not level across MENAT.
There are a number of reasons for the uneven distribution of IT infrastructure regionally. Banking regulations may not have caught up with advances in technology which makes it impossible to introduce paperless banking in countries where regulations still require physical proof of identity. However, this is quickly changing. UAE’s Smart Dubai 2021 vision of a paperless and digital society and Saudi’s 2030 vision to expand digital services are good examples.
There’s one area in HSBC in MENAT that I am particularly proud of –the part played by women. I am passionate about getting more women into technology, particularly at senior levels. In my management team, the female diversity ratio has improved 200 percent over the last two years, and is one of the most diverse teams in the bank.
I’m the CIO for a region where the perception is one of a male-dominated society. On the contrary, in the UAE it is mandatory for companies to appoint female directors on their boards, and in the government sector, a third of cabinet ministers are female. The UAE was also ranked first among 132 countries in the 'women treated with respect' indicator in the Social Progress Index 2015 report.
HSBC’s Global CIO Darryl West is an active advocate of gender diversity and he’s had some very valuable conversations with female technologists including one in the UAE earlier this year that he and I co-led. I’m proud to work for an organization that is wholly committed to closing the gender gap.
Achieving that gender balance is just like bringing banking technology up to the same level across MENAT. We’ve achieved a lot and we know what we want to do, it’s a matter of taking the right steps to get there.