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What’s driving digitalization in the Gulf?

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Banks in the Gulf are embracing blockchain, fintech, cryptocurrencies and AI as they look to cater to changing consumer demands and a rapidly evolving financial landscape.

The Middle East has seen the launch of several digital-only banks over the last few years, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain leading the charge. The licensing of digital-only players reflects the digital innovation targets set out in national development strategies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the UAE’s Smart Dubai. In turn, this is driving fintech opportunities across the region.

“Today, growth strategies are generally focused on initiatives at ecosystem level to foster innovation and development of fintechs, whether that be regulatory sandboxes or innovation hubs and accelerators,” says Serena Sebastiani, director of financial services for PwC Middle East specializing in covering fintech and open banking.

Indeed, digital transformation spending by Saudi Arabia alone reached SR12 billion ($3.19 billion) in 2021, according to the kingdom’s Digital Government Authority.

Saudi’s proactive stance has led to the introduction of laws covering a variety of fintech activities, including an instant payment system known as Sarie and the Capital Market Authority’s (CMA) fintech lab, all of which has given the investment community the confidence and certainty to devote more capital to fintech startups.

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