Challenger Banks in the Middle East: For The Digitally Savvy

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This month, The Fintech Times is focusing on Challenger banks, their evolution and their successes. With challengers and neobanks thriving across the globe, we take a look at some of the major banks in the Middle East.

The challenger bank landscape in the Middle East is generally focused on the regions younger generations. Around 30% of the population of the Middle East and Africa is aged between 15 and 29, representing around 110 million people. In addition to this, there is a large emphasis on mobile and digital banking when it comes to the regions challengers, with most offering digital-only services. The MEA region has a huge reach when it comes to mobile connectivity. The GCC has some of the worlds highest usage of mobile phones, where it is estimated that by the end of 2019 nearly 280 million people in the MENA region (45% of the population) were connected to the internet.

It’s easy to see why then the challengers in MEA focus on the young, digital-savvy generations when launching their banking services. Here’s a list of some of the key challengers in the Middle East:

Rewire

A neobank that is aimed at migrants and expatriate workers. They offer cross-border online banking and money transfers, among other services, with customers receiving an international bank account number (IBAN) and a MasterCard debit card.

They have recently raised a $20million funding round led by Ourcrowd, closing not long after Rewire was granted an EU Electronic Money Institution license.

Guy Kashtan, CEO, Rewire, says: “At our core, we aim to create financial inclusion. Everything that we do at Rewire is aimed to help migrants to build a more financially secure future for themselves and their families.

Meem

Meem is the digital retail banking services arm of the gulf international bank. It is the Bahrain regions first shariah-compliant digital banking service, offering financial solutions through its mobile app.

Launched in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in January 2014 and began its operations in the kingdom of Bahrain in March 2018. Meem combines digital and traditional banking offering current and savings accounts, debit cards, credit cards and personal finance.

In its Bahraini portfolio, Meem also has a Murabaha deposit (“the world’s first online Sharia-compliant term deposit”), a credit card, and a foreign currency account (available in USD, GBP, EUR and all GCC currencies).

Jingle Pay

Dubai-based Jingle Pay was formed in response to what digitally native Gen-Z and Millennial Audiences want from banking, such as responsive services, extremely low transfer fees, transparency and no restrictions such as minimum balance requirements.

Amir Fardghassemi said: “We’re seeing tremendous demand for a new way of offering banking services in the Middle East. Bricks and mortar banks don’t have the immediacy of response that a new generation of always-connected consumers want. And though we’re seeing conventional banks move to digital, there are gaps in user-friendliness and joyful engagement that we want to address.

“Today’s consumer is used to an always-on culture of convenience. If you can hail a cab, order goods from anywhere in the world to your door, or use your smartphone to order a meal, why can’t you enjoy the same speed, convenience and customer service in financial matters? Well, now, you can.”

Liv bank

A digital-only banking subsidiary of Emirates NBD, with the majority of banking done through its app. Liv says its products are designed for a “digital generation” and target their products to the youth of the UAE, as well as anyone with a smartphone.

As well as the traditional banking products like money transfers and ATM cards, the Liv app also features restaurant recommendations and local offers, and the chance to win prizes.

Pepper

Israel’s first digital-only bank launched by Bank Leumi in 2017. Pepper is a mobile-only banking subsidiary launched in June 2017. It is an entirely mobile banking experience with no account fees, aiming to “challenge the status quo of banking and create a different and progressive experience.” 

Pepper offers a variety of saving and lending products, utilising artificial intelligence that provides a personalised banking experience that helps customers better manage their finances. The company also launched Pepper Pay, a payments app, and Pepper Invest, an investing app aimed at younger generations.

Hala

Originally launched as Halalah before rebranding, Hala is a fast-growing digital bank that began operations in 2019. It has acquired dual banking licenses in Saudi Arabia from the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority, and in the UAE by the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) financial services regulatory authority.

Hala started as one of the first mobile wallets in the kingdom that allowed customers to make digital payments for different services. In 2020, the app shifted in focus to provide financial services to SME businesses, being used by 20,000 merchants in Saudi Arabia.

CBD Now

This is the digital-only arm of the Commercial Bank of Dubai and was the first digital bank to market in the UAE in 2017.

Walter Lironi, general manager of digital transformation at CBD, said its research shows that “digitally connected customers” want an experience “whereby everything can be done via smartphone”.

The bank is targeted specifically at millennials and digitally savvy consumers, offering a full range of banking services through their app.

Mashreq Neo

This digital-only bank was launched in 2017 by Mashreq Bank in Dubai. The bank is completely branchless and is targeted towards the younger tech savvy generation.

They offer all popular banking services through their neo mobile banking app, neo online, and have a Facebook messenger integrated chatbot.

At the time of launch, Mashreq Bank said Neo was “the first digital bank in the GCC region” to provide access to international markets for investment opportunities including foreign equities, gold trading and foreign currency accounts.

ila Bank

The Arab Banking Corporation (ABC Bank) launched its only mobile challenger bank in Bahrain in 2019. Offering virtual cards and a 2-minute onboarding process, the bank recently launched its premium service. Ila Premium is a customised service offered to all customer segments on a subscription basis, giving exclusive perks that mirror customer spending behaviours giving them more value for their money.

Commenting on its offering, ila Bank Head of Business & Customer, Nada Tarada, said: “ila Premium is catered to customers looking for more benefits that in traditional banks today can only be availed by high-income customers. It is the only subscription-based model in the Kingdom of Bahrain and is tailor-made for customers to easily avail to competitive banking benefits such as discounts on fees and charges, preferential interest and foreign exchange rates and higher transaction limits.”

Xpence

Founded in 2017, Xpence is a neobank “designed by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs”, and is aimed at freelancers, solo entrepreneurs and start-ups. The founders say the bank was born out of frustration – as they couldn’t open a bank account for their own start-up.

In response to this, the bank provides bookkeeping and banking in one app, tagging ad categorising expenditure in real-time, as well as issuing visa business cards and reminding customers to attach receipts in-app.

  • Polly is a journalist, content creator and general opinion holder from North Wales. She has written for a number of publications, usually hovering around the topics of fintech, tech, lifestyle and body positivity.

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