Bahrain: The Innovation-Driven Financial Hub
You joined Bank ABC in 1991 and became group CEO in 2013. What has your personal experience been over the past 30 years and how has Bank ABC evolved?
Khaled Kawan, Group CEO, Bank ABC: Bank ABC was established 40 years ago with a capital of about $1 billion — a quite significant amount at the time. When I joined, the bank had completed its first decade. I had the privilege to be close to the founders and those who had the first dreams and first aspirations.
Three sovereign funds — Central Bank of Libya, Kuwait Investment Authority and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority — came together to build a bank. What else can you add to the scenery? The founders’ ambition was not to create another bank, but to complement the local banks with an international Arab bank that could support them in the international markets by providing an alternative to other international banks.
The recent pullout of a number of international banks from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has given Bank ABC more emphasis to its raison d’être. We have sharpened our business model, reconsidered our geographies and invested in our products and our technology to better serve clients and be the bank naturally geared to capture the business flow across a widespread region.
We’re not an equity bank and we’re not a local bank, as our business in Bahrain is quite limited because of the nature of the regulation in Bahrain, so all our business is outside. By ensuring the group footprint works together, through a very connected matrix, we attract clients and ensure the business within the territory we serve is captured within the entirety of Bank ABC.
What does your recent acquisition of BLOM Bank Egypt SAE mean for you? What impact will it have on your operations and strategic intentions?
Our strategy has always been to reinforce our presence in the retail business in the Arab world with a target that fits within the size of Bank ABC. It must also be accretive to our bottom line and increase the mix of retail funding deposits. As a wholesale bank, we are funded by our corporate customers.
The Egyptian market is very deep and very hungry for digital solutions. Now we’ve proven ourselves and seen that our technology is working with absolutely no glitches, it’s a matter of parachuting it into a market that has the depth and the propensity to support these types of products.
Please briefly outline your strategic vision and what you most hope to achieve in the medium to long term?
We have four objectives. The first is to accelerate the build of our digital bank of the future via a three-prong strategy: expanding our digital-only consumer bank, digitizing wholesale banking, which is our core business, and building our payment and fintech arm. The second pillar is to continue to refocus our wholesale banking business to unlock performance.
Thirdly, we want to complete the integration of our business in Egypt, because that would be the flagship of our MENA business. We have acquired BLOM Bank Egypt, but acquiring a bank is not the end of the story. We need to leverage that platform by injecting the group’s technology, know-how and products into that platform.
“The reputation of our New York branch is immaculate, our relationship with the regulators is one of the best, and our relationship with the U.S. corporates is second to none.”
Fourthly, as we are really growing the digital agenda and going on to the cloud, risks are created as well. We need to immediately increase our cybersecurity and business continuity discussions. So, we have a pillar on operational resilience to make sure that all the services we provide to clients will not be disrupted, that they will be maintained and continued.
These are the four business pillars or strategic thinking I’m trying to align everybody across, so we think together to move together to achieve them within the next year and a half. Then we’ll take a pause and say: now we have achieved our digital transformation, our wholesale bank is in shape, our retail business is mature and we have a platform, what is the next stage?
What opportunities for investment do you see in your sector from the U.S. into Bahrain?
We’ve had a branch in New York for 40 years. While we don’t hold ourselves as a solution for everyone in New York, we bring to New York something unique: our knowledge of the Arab world and our knowledge of the most challenging jurisdictions in the Arab world. For an American company that is selling its products or exporting its products to the region, all they need is an expert behind them and with them, right there, close to them in their backyard, to advise them on how to do business.
The reputation of the branch has been immaculate, our relationship with the regulators is one of the best, and our relationship with the U.S. corporates has been second to none. We’ve been helping them in all pockets of the Arab world and will continue to provide them with this know-how and expertise.
I tell my team to remember two key words: stability and speed. Speed, because we need to accelerate development; stability as our feet should be on the ground. Risk management is extremely important, as is operational resilience.
What final message would you like to send to the readers of Foreign Policy?
We are in a very exciting era. Technology and digitalization are going to transform the world. The crisis we’ve been through, as painful as it is, will be a major accelerator: the way we do our work, the way we serve, the way we handle ourselves and the way we live. We’re looking forward to embracing all this and making the business experience of our clients even better.