UAE banks had already put in sufficient resources on their digital services. At the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, these systems have proved robust enough to deliver all needed transaction services. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Banking customers in the UAE should consider using online and mobile banking channels to support the UAE government’s effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. This point is being re-emphasised by the Central Bank of UAE (CBUAE), UAE Banks Federation, and all leading banks operating in the UAE.

“Following our leadership directives, our number one priority is your safety of and each one of us has a responsibility to take steps to mitigate the effect of the spread of COVID-19,” said Mubarak Rashed Al Mansoori, Central Bank Governor.

The apex bank also asked banks to make available more digital/online services in the face of this unprecedented public health scare.

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The UAE Central Bank has issued clear-cut instructions on branch operations to counter the COVID-19 outbreak. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

No need to visit branches

Most UAE banks operate robust digital banking platforms that allow more than 90 per cent of retail banking related transactions to be done online. Banks have been investing heavily in digital transformation and have the electronic channels that can deliver a majority of services.

Early adopters of this transformation - Emirates NBD Group, Mashreq, Commercial Bank of Dubai and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank - have been offering digital services that have already seen significant reductions in customer footfall at branches. While most banks have seen reduction in their branch networks, Mashreq last year even announced a 50 per cent reduction in its network supported by its digital solutions.

In recent years, UAE banks have adopted an extensive use of new-generation machines such as automated teller machines (ATMs), cheque deposit machines (CDMs), improved online banking platforms and mobile apps that are capable of doing most traditional bank functions such as cash withdrawals, cash and cheque deposits, utility payments, money transfers and most types of digitally-supported bill payments.

Fully set

“A national level emergency situation such as the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the preparedness of the UAE’s banking sector in offering digital solutions to customers,” said the retail banking head of a Dubai-based bank. “Barring a very few services (less than 5 per cent), customers can access their bank through digital and online channels,”

A few such as Emirates NBD and Mashreq have automated digital transactions in excess of 95 per cent. While the UAE’s banking sector is fully geared for a digital option, banks confirmed a vast majority of customers too have smoothly adapted to the transformation.

“The worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 has created significant challenges to society,” said AbdulAziz Al Ghurair, Chairman of UAE Banks Federation. “Although the UAE banking sector has not seen any significant pressure at this stage, to maximize efficiencies and reduce the spread of the virus, we encourage all customers to use digital channels to conduct their banking,”

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Leading UAE banks have been early adopters of digital banking delivery, which includes the setting up of dedicated 'digital bank' subsidiaries.

Limited branch operations

While the Central Bank and UAE Banks Federation reassured customers on the continuity of banking services during times of uncertainty, the regulator have asked banks to limit branch operations to comply with government regulations to limit the virus spread.

According to a CBUAE notification, financial institutions and exchange houses under Central Bank supervision should follow guidelines that state only 30 per cent of those working in critical positions are required to be at the office.

According to Al Mansoori of the Central Bank, “We and the financial institutions stand strong to serve the community through multiple digital channels and contact centres.”

The regulator has given freedom to banks and exchange houses to take the decision on reduced working hours and temporary closure of some branches as long as the services offered to customers are not interrupted. This became effective from March 29 for two weeks extendable.

“We were one of the first sectors that implemented remote working system effectively within the banks’ business continuity plan, took necessary precautionary and preventive measures and adopted procedures and technologies that ensured swift and efficient operations,” said Al Mansoori.

Early into social distancing

The UAE’s banking sector too steps on social distancing right in the early days of the virus outbreak. In the first week of March, Emirates NBD Group, Mashreq, RAKBank and Commercial Bank of Dubai established internal guideline on social distancing. The measures ranged from restriction on internal meetings, trainings, client meetings and travel within and outside the country to protect their employees and clients from potential risk of exposure to the virus.

Digital leap becomes handy in COVID-19 fight
The UAE banks have made significant progress in their digital transformation efforts and this has come as a blessing for the sector and customers at a time of a major pandemic scare.

In recent years, a number of UAE banks have undertaken digital banking initiatives, ranging from launching separate digital-only banking platforms, to strengthening existing mobile and online banking services.

Emirates NBD (ENBD) launched Liv., a millennial-targetted digital banking proposition; Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB) partnered with Fidor Bank to launch the Middle East’s first community-based digital bank; Commercial Bank of Dubai launched CBD NOW, also targeting millennials and digitally connected customers with a mobile proposition; and Mashreq Bank launched Mashreq Neo, its full-service digital bank.

Most recently, Dubai-based challenger bank Xpence unveiled plans to introduce a digital-only business current account.