The worldwide push for open banking, open finance, and, ultimately, an open data economy continues to grow stronger. COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend.
In the Middle East, two phenomena support quicker local adoption. First, national governments such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have placed key digital initiatives at the core of their sweeping national transformation agendas. Second, consumers in the region are majority digital natives—people who have grown up in the information age—and they expect technology to improve their everyday lives. The Accenture 2020 Global Banking Consumer Study found that most consumers in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ‘pioneers’—risk-takers who are tech-savvy and hungry for innovation. Open Banking, and more broadly, open finance, is where the market is headed and many of the necessary ingredients exist to accelerate this shift.
Not all regions are keeping up, and the Middle East—except for Bahrain—is one of them. Data from Open Banking Tracker indicates a significant lag in terms of bank APIs, API aggregators, and third-party providers in the Middle East compared to elsewhere—for example, as of December 2021, there were no registered TPPs in the region.
Open finance maturity remains low in the region despite growing regulatory involvement. The Central Bank of Bahrain, for example, adopted open banking rules as early as 2018 and launched the Bahrain Open Banking Framework in October 2020, which is now in its second phase. In Saudi Arabia, regulatory approval was more recent, and the regulator is currently in the process of rolling it out. Since 2020, in the UAE, the Dubai Financial Services Authority has granted select open-banking-related licenses that are restricted to activities within the Dubai International Financial Centre—yet more formal regulation from the central bank is still lacking.
This slow rate of progress matters. It’s putting the countries in the region at risk of missing out on the numerous benefits open finance enables for the entire ecosystem. Some of these benefits include all stakeholders in the market profiting from data being shared on a constant basis and in real-time. For central banks and regulators, increased data transmission, via an integrated platform operated by the regulator, will allow for a cleaner and more cost-effective reporting and compliance process.
Monitoring & control
The Middle East has always been an amalgamation of global best practices. From architectural feats to leading practices in social cohesion, the region always looks outwards before looking inwards to learn how best to tackle an undertaking. Local regulators have a golden opportunity to revamp an industry that is often seen as being behind the digital adoption curve. With a regulator-driven approach to open finance, governments can boost business, support entrepreneurial and venture capital activity, and reap many benefits that will allow them to get ahead.
The adoption of open banking and open finance, in their broad sense, is still nascent. However, the right ingredients exist to move forward—quickly. The many examples presented here highlight how a regulator-driven approach has spurred the ecosystem to advance, bringing benefits for the regulators, financial institutions and customers alike. By focusing on the three areas outlined in this paper—planning, building and operating—Middle Eastern banks can do much more than just get well underway; they can easily get ahead and serve as an example for other nations too.