Expanding Qatar’s range of financial services has been a priority in recent years, enshrined in Qatar National Vision 2030, as well as other government strategies. Indeed, a wide and deep financial services sector is essential to fostering broad-based growth and connecting Qatar’s start-up ecosystem with international counterparts. Specifically, the government is seeking to foster partnerships between banks and the wider financial ecosystem in order to digitalise and improve services, including government to citizen, business to consumer, government to business, and business to business.
The Qatar Central Bank (QCB) views financial technology (fintech) as critical to the sector’s long-term development, and an opportunity to increase access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the GCC. Individual banks, both conventional and Islamic, are also working to boost access to finance. For example, Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB), the Middle East’s largest sharia-compliant lender by assets, has introduced automated credit applications that have cut the processing time of SMEs’ applications by 80%, and the time to disbursement by 50%.
Qatar is well placed to benefit from solutions that improve the efficiency of financial services as it pursues economic diversification. The non-hydrocarbons economy is projected to grow by 4.9% in 2022, outpacing the 3% growth forecast in the oil and gas sector, and setting the stage for service sector growth of 8.3% in 2023. Other push factors include investment in sport technology as Qatar seeks to nurture companies in e-sport, e-gaming and digital fan engagement ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup (see ICT chapter). Smart city projects, notably Lusail City – a $45bn smart city just north of Doha – will drive demand for fintech solutions as omni-channel retail, media and culture, leisure and entertainment, and digital health services take shape. Moreover, the country has strong potential to offer regional leadership in Islamic finance, with the segment in Qatar projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.6% between 2021 and 2024, reaching $1bn by 2025.
The uptake of fintech is supported by strong ICT infrastructure and the widespread use of digital tools, with Qatar’s internet and social media penetration at 99%. As two-thirds of Qatari citizens hold an account with a financial institution, this is an opportunity to leverage fintech to improve financial inclusion. Notably, robust government support has enabled the banking sector to weather the Covid-19 pandemic and remain well capitalised despite global headwinds, putting the sector in a position to fund further investment in fintech.
“Banking digitalisation is aimed at enhancing profitability, scaling up operations and improving customer experience. Digital solutions help banks to reach a much broader range of demographics and segments, which enhances the overall resilience of the organisation,” Mohamed Gad, CEO of Standard Chartered Qatar, told OBG.
Qatar Development Bank (QDB) co-founded the Qatar Fintech Hub (QFTH) in 2018 to accelerate fintech start-ups. The centre has since accepted two waves of start-ups, comprising a total of 40 fintechs and attracting more than $3.5m in investment. The third wave launched in October 2021. QFTH offers fintechs access to $100,000 in capital, plus in-kind support of up to $250,000, as well as special fintech visas and the option of 100% foreign ownership of their businesses. Other incentives include collaboration with over a dozen local financial institutions and regulators, and access to the hub’s global network, which has partners in the US, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore and Nigeria. Successful applicants also enjoy networking opportunities with representatives from other global fintech centres and business development programmes.
The majority of graduates from the first wave focused on payments and solutions for SMEs, while the largest focus of the second cohort was wealth technologies, with nine of the 22 graduates active in this area. Other participant areas included alternative lending, insurance technology and chatbots.
The Qatar Mobile Payment (QMP) system, launched by the QCB in 2020, provides a robust, enabling infrastructure for payment-focused fintechs. For example, QIB’s mobile app uses the mPay digital wallet, a cashless and cardless payment gateway in the QMP network for transfers, bill payments, merchant transactions and other services. The app offers Instant Finance, Qatar’s first fully digital pathway to obtain personal finance, as well as a digital onboarding solution for new savings and current accounts. Optical character recognition reads documentation such as passports and ID cards without the need for customers to type the information, improving efficiency and streamlining the process of opening a bank account.
Elsewhere, Ahli Bank has partnered with Visa to foster payment innovation and launch new cardbased payment products for its customers. Qatar National Bank, for its part, is partnering with Ripple, a provider of enterprise blockchain solutions, to improve cross-border payments and remittance services, while Qatar Commercial Bank is pursuing its own digital transformation. In January 2020 the bank completed trials of blockchain-based open-account trade finance on the Marco Polo platform, which enables institutions and companies to automate their trade and working capital activities. As of October 2021 Qatar Commercial Bank handled more than 2m contactless transactions per month, and offered mobile payment solutions to merchants.
Qatar’s geographic position and role as a leading global exporter of liquefied natural gas – underscored by a March 2022 supply deal with Germany to help the country diversify away from its historic reliance on Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine the previous month – suggest there is space for fintech to fuel growth in trade finance services.
For example, in November 2021 the Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) – a one-stop shop for licensing, commercial registration, immigration and related services – welcomed NEBIX, a digital trade finance marketplace headquartered in Doha. NEBIX will provide companies and financial institutions services that will facilitate trade along the country’s New Emerging Belt Initiative trade corridor between the Caucasus region and Central Asia, including the Gulf. Its Fineon Exchange fintech platform validates trade finance requirements and the creditworthiness of firms, and matches clients with funders and credit insurers. This, in turn, helps businesses increase sales, optimise working capital and minimise risk. The platform is expected to help promote trade finance as an attractive asset class for investors across the Middle East and Central Asia.
The QFC also offers to waive the $10,000 in application and registration fees for qualified fintechs, and provides rent-free operating space for the first 12 months. The centre plans to register 1000 companies by end-2022, some of which may be graduates from QFTH programmes. Upon completion, QFTH participants should enter a regulatory sandbox, where they will receive support on local licensing needs, in addition to benefitting from a fee waiver on company registration.
The sandbox has been on the QFTH’s agenda in recent years, but had yet to be formally launched as of March 2022. The sandbox initiative seeks to address a global challenge: creating a supportive regulatory environment that allows innovative companies to experiment and grow, while at the same time protecting consumers and other stakeholders from cybersecurity threats and fraud.
The fact that cryptocurrency companies are restricted in Qatar shows the importance the authorities attach to maintaining the stability of the financial system. That said, in September 2021 Sheikh Abdulla bin Saoud Al Thani, then governor of the QCB, indicated that the central bank was monitoring developments in the space and may welcome cryptocurrency companies in due course. In the interim, the QCB is driving efforts to improve the fintech regulatory framework by managing cooperation between the government and the country’s 17 major commercial financial institutions.
While the pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation trend in Qatar’s banking sector, spurring investment in automation software and cloud-based and contactless technology, there is room for growth. Indeed, Qatar’s ICT spending is forecast to reach $9bn by 2024, expanding at a CAGR of 9.2% and highlighting the scope for continued advancement.