Bahrain's private sector urged to take a cue from ‘digital’ government

For the banking industry, this means offering comprehensive banking services through online portals and mobile applications

The skyline of illuminated Manama city waterfront at night, Manama city, Bahrain. Image used for illustrative purpose.

The skyline of illuminated Manama city waterfront at night, Manama city, Bahrain. Image used for illustrative purpose.

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MANAMA: Ithmaar Holding chief executive Ahmed Abdul Rahim has urged Bahrain’s private sector to embrace digitalisation following the example of the government.

In line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Bahrain government emphasises the importance of digital government as a means of making government services more transparent, accessible and inclusive to all members of the public. Over the past year, Bahrain’s Information and eGovernment Authority (iGA) accelerated its roll-out of eServices and now offers more than 500 services online.

“It falls on the private sector to follow the example set by the government,” said Mr Abdul Rahim.

“For the banking industry, this means offering comprehensive banking services through online portals and mobile applications,” he said.

“Consumers have already adopted this change and our retail banking operations in Bahrain, for example, have reported a significant 25 to 30 per cent drop in cash-based transactions during the period from Q1 2020 to Q1 2021, indicating a large customer shift to digital banking,” said Mr Abdul Rahim.

“Cash withdrawals from Ithmaar Bank ATMs, for example, dropped 26pc in terms of volume and 20pc in terms of value between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021, with branches reporting almost exactly the same reductions, both in terms of volume and value of cash withdrawals. Cash deposits at the branches reduced even further during the period, with the number of transactions dropping by almost 33pc and the value by 30pc,” he said.

“This pronounced drop in cash-based transactions, both at ATMs and branches, correspond with an increase in digital banking transactions,” said Mr Abdul Rahim.

“In the Ithmaar Bank example, customer utlisation of digital channels, including eBanking and the mobile application, increased almost 19pc between Q1-2020 and Q1-2021,” he said.

The CEO noted, for example, that advancements in natural language processing are making chatbots sophisticated enough to communicate with customers and provide services in a fully automated way while saving billions of dollars worldwide – disrupting not just the banking industry, but also insurance, where chatbots can automate the collection of incident reports from customers and Artificial Intelligence can analyse the information.

“Solidarity Group, which is part of the Ithmaar Holding portfolio and one of the largest takaful groups in the region, started to implement these technologies to reduce claim settlement times for customers and increase loyalty and satisfaction,” said Mr Abdul Rahim.

“Customer-focused, service-based offerings are being completely reimagined, effectively redefining entire industries and how they operate. This is particularly true for retail-focused financial services like banks and insurance companies, and sets the stage for significant growth opportunities,” he said.

Solidarity Group Holding, one of the largest Takaful companies in the region, operates in Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia through its two subsidiaries and an associate.

It recently acquired companies in Jordan and Bahrain and merged them with local operating entities to make them among the top companies in their respective markets.

Solidarity Group has since embarked on a customer-centred digital transformation journey which includes Video Insurance, a first of its type in the GCC.

Talking about the real estate sector, which is a key focus of IB Capital, Ithmaar’s investment and non-core assets holding subsidiary, Mr Abdul Rahim said the Housing Ministry aims to complete five full-fledged, self-contained residential towns by 2025: Madinat Salman, Madinat Khalifa, East Hidd, East Sitra and Al Ramli District,

“This represents tremendous opportunities for the real estate market as well as for commercial banks offering home financing products,” he said.

Ithmaar Holding is a founder and majority shareholder in Naseej, which has been focused on affordable family housing and delivered multiple developments under a pioneering and very successful public-private partnership (PPP) in Hamad Town and Madinat Salman.

Ithmaar Holding’s other real estate arm in Bahrain, Ithmaar Development Company, was a key player in developing and implementing the PPP and on delivering subsequent infrastructure developments including schools and medical facilities.

Meanwhile, Ithmaar Bank, and its associate, BBK, are both key contributors in the Mazaya Home financing programme which aims to help eligible citizens buy their first homes.

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