Dubai financial center’s Hive creates buzz in regional fintech market

Updated 28 August 2017

Dubai financial center’s Hive creates buzz in regional fintech market

I met Raja Al-Mazrouei in the glittering new FinTech Hive at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), all open-plan workspaces, break-out areas and coffee machines.
There is even a sound-proofed pod suspended from the ceiling that looks like a football cut in half, where you can make mobile calls without being disturbed by the background noise from the young entrepreneurs who will be working there.
I remarked to her that it was all “pretty hip,” and she replied, “Yes, I suppose you could call it hip.”
Since May this year, Al-Mazrouei has been in charge of the DIFC’s financial technology (fintech) initiative, which the center sees as a crucial part of its ambitious plan to triple in size by 2024, helping maintain Dubai’s lead as the premier financial marketplace in the region.
Last week, it officially opened the FinTech Hive at DIFC, and marked that by announcing the names of 11 successful applicants to its “accelerator” program, designed to attract fast-growing fintech companies to Dubai. “It’s been very busy,” Al-Mazrouei said.
Fintech is as hip as it gets in the sometimes dull world of financial services. Essentially, it is the application of new technology to the finance industry, ranging from mobile-based personal banking services through to huge global systems like the blockchain digital accounting system and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.
Fintech has attracted an army of smart young entrepreneurs, all keen to win a slice of the estimated $50 billion that has been invested in fintech in recent years, according to a recent analysis by consultants Accenture. The DIFC’s Hive is the latest bid to create a fintech hub in the Arabian Gulf region, to rival more established centers like New York, London and Singapore.
“We want to create an ecosystem of partners to encourage ‘growth stage’ fintech firms to use DIFC as their hub,” Al-Mazrouei said.
The issue, however, is that virtually every other financial center in the Middle East has the same ambition. While the region came pretty late to fintech, compared to the big global financial markets, there has been a clamor to catch up.
In early 2016, Abu Dhabi declared its ambition to be the fintech capital of the Gulf, and has since set up and is operating its own fintech hub in the Abu Dhabi Global Market, the UAE’s new financial free zone.
Bahrain has also established a fintech hub, while Saudi Arabia has declared fintech to be an integral part of the Vision 2030 strategy to transform the economy, and has the financial firepower to back up that ambition. There is speculation in the Kingdom of a big investment in fintech by one of its funds.
Even Cairo has highlighted fintech as a growth area, and set up two units to encourage financial entrepreneurship in the sector.
So is the fintech market in the region sufficiently big to satisfy all those aspiring new entrants? “I think the market is there. Dubai has some other advantages, apart from the fact DIFC is the leading financial hub in the region. The fintech initiative coincides with the government’s innovation program, and with the whole ‘smart city’ strategy. It makes a compelling case for Dubai,” said Al-Mazrouei.
In theory, the Gulf should be a magnet for fintech investment. The Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region — of which it is the hub — has a population of 3 billion, a big youth demographic, and high rates of cellphone usage. Underbanked in the traditional sense, the theory is that young people in the region will miss out altogether on traditional branch banking, and go straight to mobile services.
These factors would seem to make it a natural fintech hub, but investment has so far lagged global levels. Only 1 percent of the $50 billion estimated by Accenture has gone into the Middle East.
The FinTech Hive at DIFC is designed to help bridge that gap. Its “accelerator” program, which advanced significantly last week with the unveiling of the 11 successful participants, is a crucial part of that strategy.
The 11 “winners” are what Al-Mazrouei calls “growth stage” firms. “They are already doing business but they might need some fine-tuning, for example to upgrade their technologies to take into account the special needs of the MEASA region — products that address the access for younger populations of the Middle East, Africa and Asia who are the most likely potential customers of fintech products for personal finance. The firms all have either a financial history, or they have raised investment already. Some of them have funds and a working product,” she explained.
The accelerator program involves a three-stage “curriculum” over the coming 12 weeks. In the first phase, the 11 firms will meet with executives from the accelerator’s financial partners — 10 prominent banks — to identify industry challenges and possible solutions to address them.
In the second phase, they will receive direct “mentoring” from the financial institutions and from the DIFC, on technology, legal and regulatory affairs, and Islamic finance.
The third phase will involve the companies preparing to pitch ideas at an “investor day” in mid-November, when they will present their products to a group of private investors, bankers and government officials. The countdown to investor day has already begin in the DIFC, with posters showing the number of days remaining until the 11 aspirants learn their fate.
Then, assuming they make the cut, there are several possible outcomes, Al-Mazrouei explained. “They will be acquired by one of the banks; they will attract more funding to invest more in their development; or they will have contracts to provide services to financial firms,” she said.
Any of those would seem to be attractive propositions for young fintech-savvy entrepreneurs. Of the 11 chosen for the accelerator, two are from the UAE, three are from the US, and there is one each from the UK, Sweden, Jordan, India, Singapore and Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijan team, which has developed a fintech product for Islamic finance, was especially enthusiastic and insisted on attending all the interviews in person, rather than via Skype, Al-Mazrouei said.
There is interest from Saudi entrepreneurs too, which may show through in the next accelerator round. “Some young Saudis recognized me in the DIFC and began explaining about their payments system. It’s very ambitious and I’m sure it has a future,” Al-Mazrouei said.
She hopes the changes going on in Saudi Arabia under the Vision 2030 strategy for economic diversification will being benefits for the whole region. “I think all the signs are pointed in the right direction and are aligned with the overall economic strategy. The dynamics of the region are changing but Saudi Arabia is in tune with those plans. The recent appointments of women to senior positions in the financial industry was a very good indicator of the way things are going,” she said.
Another reason Al-Mazrouei is confident there is a market for fintech in the region despite the growing number of centers focusing on it is the level of response DIFC got to its accelerator program. “It was overwhelming. We thought we’d get between 70 and 80 applicants, not 111 as we (did get),” she said.
On the tricky question of whether she and the DIFC would cooperate with other centers, rather than competing for business as seems to be the case now, Al-Mazrouei responds: “I am always willing to cooperate. But all the other centers are each doing it slightly differently. I think the accelerator program is unique in that we have offered them the opportunity to partner with 10 big financial institutions in the region.”
DIFC’s fintech initiative has the potential to add significantly to its expansion plans. Under the center’s 10-year strategy announced in 2014, it aims to triple the number of regulated financial firms in a decade, with a target set of 1,000 members. At the last estimate in June, that sat at 463 firms regulated by the Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA).
Between now and 2024, one could expect to see around 70 new fintech DIFC member firms via the accelerator scheme, assuming the target of 10 per year is met. “Fintech fits in well with the DIFC’s 10-year strategy. The aim is to triple the size of the DIFC by 2024 — in physical space, member firms and assets under management. The new fintech entrants will add to all three of those categories,” Al-Mazrouei said.
Of course, there is nothing to stop fintech firms applying to become immediate full members of the DIFC; they could also apply for a special innovation testing license, which gives them one-year membership of the DIFC on competitive terms, under regulation of the DFSA. If after one year they and the DIFC agree it is beneficial, they can move to full DIFC membership, Al-Mazrouei said.
Al-Mazrouei is a prime example of the new generation of Emirati women who are forging an executive path in the higher echelons of UAE business life. Her background seems to make her perfectly suited for the Hive job.
After education in the UAE and a degree in business information technology, she graduated from the Harvard Business School’s advanced management program in the US, and then came back to work in Dubai in IT-related posts for National Bonds, and for Dubai Holding, the government-owned conglomerate. At the DIFC, she spent time as the head of marketing and communications at the center, in addition to IT roles.
“I have experience in IT and in marketing, so it comes together well in this new role. I’m an engineer by background, so I understand technology. The combination works really well in the fintech space. Plus I have experience of international marketing and how it supports development,” Al-Mazrouei said.
Of the current elite global fintech hubs — New York, London and Singapore — Al-Mazrouei believes the UK capital is the one Dubai must seek to emulate. “I think we learned most from London, which I see as the center of global fintech. It’s the biggest and most innovative,” she said.


Trump calls for World Bank to stop lending to China

Updated 27 min 55 sec ago

Trump calls for World Bank to stop lending to China

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump on Friday called for the World Bank to stop giving loans to China, one day after the institution adopted a lending plan to Beijing over Washington’s objections.
The World Bank on Thursday adopted a plan to aid China with $1 billion to $1.5 billion in low-interest loans annually through June 2025. The plan calls for lending to “gradually decline” from the previous five-year average of $1.8 billion.
“Why is the World Bank loaning money to China? Can this be possible? China has plenty of money, and if they don’t, they create it. STOP!” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.
Spokespeople for the White House and the World Bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The World Bank loaned China $1.3 billion in the fiscal 2019 year, which ended on June 30, a decrease from around $2.4 billion in fiscal 2017.
But the fall in the World Bank’s loans to China is not swift enough for the Trump administration, which has argued that Beijing is too wealthy for international aid.