Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Chairman, Mashreq Image Credit: Gulf News Archives


In his first interview as Chairman, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair envisions a whole different landscape for the banking sector from what it was when he helped found Mashreq, the country’s oldest privately owned bank, in 1967

With more than 50 years behind it, Mashreq has walked hand-in-hand with the UAE’s history that has spanned 48. From a sleepy country of pearl drivers to its present-day identity as a bustling, gleaming metropolis, the UAE has come a long way. So has Mashreq. Its continued evolution as a financial organisation partnering the country and its people in its progress — serves as a stellar example of a business that has emerged bigger and better with every passing year.

Today, the man behind it, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair has evolved into a powerhouse. Mashreq, with Al Ghurair at the helm, has grown from a small, local bank to one of the fastest growing financial institutions in the region. The bank in recent years has shifted focus to digitisation and plans to convert the majority of its brick-and-mortar branches in the UAE to digital branches as it expands its online portfolio of products and services.

After almost three decades as the chief executive of one of the oldest lenders in the emirates, Al Ghurair stepped down to take over the reins as the Chairman of the bank in October. In this exclusive interview, his first as Chairman, Al Ghurair envisions a whole different landscape for the banking sector from what it was when he helped found Mashreq, the country’s oldest privately owned bank, in 1967.

Mashreq Bank and the UAE have walked hand-in-hand with the UAE’s own history. How has the bank partnered the country and its people in its progress?

Since our launch 50 years ago, Mashreq has always been at the forefront of supporting Dubai and the wider UAE’s economy. The bank was at the heart of building some of Dubai’s iconic projects that have changed the destiny of the city, enabling the construction of some of the UAE’s most significant infrastructure projects. Palm Jumeirah, for instance, was the first offshore development of its kind. It was built in 2003 for about $5 billion. There was the development of Dubai International Airport, which today is the world’s busiest by passenger numbers. The list of iconic projects is long, from Burj Al Arab to Dubai Metro and Burj Khalifa.

Beyond these projects, Mashreq was one of the first players in the market to introduce innovative products in the UAE. We were the first bank to install ATM cash dispensers, issue debit and credit cards, introduce consumer loans, chip-based credit cards, and the UAE’s first digital bank: Mashreq Neo. In September, we launched NeoBiz, a custom-built digital business bank to support SMEs and entrepreneurs in the UAE.

Through innovation, strong financial performance, and high levels of customer service, we will find ways to make possible. In addition, Mashreq is committed to nurture and develop Emirati talent as we believe they hold the key to the future success of our country. We are one of the few banking institutions to have a dedicated national development programme.

ACE, our flagship talent development platform, offers a truly comprehensive and world-class learning experience for Emirati aspirants, who are looking to make a career in the corporate and investment banking space.

Also, the number of UAE nationals who have joined the bank in the past five years have grown exponentially. This is an example of the bank’s commitment to supporting the UAE’s vision to grow future leaders and is aligned with the government’s vision to foster an empowered and trained Emirati workforce.

As the Chairman of Mashreq Bank, what are the future plans that you plan to introduce?

As the Chairman, I will continue to offer my guidance and insight and remain committed to Mashreq staying on its successful trajectory. I am committed to the long-term profitability and success of this institution, a success that would not have been possible without the continued support of the board.

The bank’s solid market performance in the third quarter of 2019 has enabled us to record a healthy net profit of Dh1.8 billion. Overall, our strong performance also acknowledges our people’s continuous efforts to introduce innovation within our services.

As we continue to implement our digital transformation strategy, we remain focused on improving the banking experience for all our customers through ongoing investments in digitisation and technology. In particular, the launch of Mashreq’s NeoBiz is the latest example of how the bank is leveraging innovation to offer a seamless experience to our business customers. The initiative is also geared towards supporting the vital SME ecosystem, which has historically been the backbone of the UAE economy.

As we approach the last quarter of the year, the bank remains well poised to deliver on the successes exhibited during the first nine months of the year. We will continue to implement on our successful strategy built around providing an excellent customer experience, as well as leveraging the latest technological innovations to offer best-in-class products and services in line with evolving customer needs.

What big technological trends do you foresee in the UAE with regards to financial  services?

The global banking industry is going through a period of rapid transformation, heralded by disruption and driven by emerging digital technologies. The unbelievable pace of change in technological advancements is making possible what was not feasible earlier. There is a lot of opportunity for banks in digitalisation, namely opportunities to improve overall profitability, volume growth and efficiency in service.

Banks of the future will have to complement the lifestyle of their customers. Customers will expect an integrated and seamless experience across all of their bank’s channels. Every customer interaction, be it a branch visit, transaction through a robot or machine, or a mobile banking app will have to be seamless, convenient and interconnected.

Another big change in the banking sector will be greater use of a combination of AI and data analysis to offer sophisticated and value-added advisory services to customers.

In essence, the unification of these technologies will help customers spend their money more efficiently towards their short-term financial goals — and this may be achieved without human interaction. Additionally, the ubiquitous ATM will likely evolve into a 24/7 service centre, rather than being merely a cash-dispenser.

To take advantage of these trends and technologies, banks may have to change the core technology architecture and modernise them. The concept will be of digital inside and digital outside. Last but not the least, digital-only banks will play a significant role in transforming the banking space. Using AI and big data they will be able to offer a simpler, intuitive and innovative banking experience to customers.

How you do envision digital technology to improve the lives of residents in the UAE and make everything from transport to banking not only efficient but also sustainable?

The UAE has embarked on a vision to make the country one of the most technologically-advanced cities in the world. For example, Smart Dubai initiative is focused on preparing Dubai to embrace the future and emerge as a world-leading city by 2021, by promoting technological advances that benefit the city’s people, its economy and its resources.

Key strategic goals include transforming more than 1,100 essential government services into smart services carried out primarily online; introducing autonomous vehicles and smart transportation services; and developing a data-driven economy that authorities estimate will generate an additional Dh10.4 billion in GDP by 2021.

As a banking leader, Mashreq is ready to support the UAE’s smart city initiatives. We have been responsible for several digital-banking firsts in the UAE, including the recent launch of NeoBiz. The response to these initiatives have been extremely favorable and positive, with consumers embracing the convenience and flexibility that digital banking offers. To this end, automated transactions by our customers across all the branches are as high as 97 per cent.

How do you see the potential for Dubai becoming a leading regional fintech hub? How is Mashreq supporting this initiative?

Dubai boasts an unmatched infrastructure and innovation ecosystem providing a perfect environment for technology and disruptive businesses to create innovative solutions for business operating across the region. DIFC - the financial centre of Dubai - is a testament to that. With a fintech community of more than 50 firms and several related clients, it is perfectly poised to deliver financial services to more people across the region.

Dubai has all the right ingredients to facilitate the development of digitally enabled financial solutions for the region. We believe fintech has the potential to disrupt traditional modes of banking by offering targeted solutions with better servicing to both retail consumers and businesses. In my opinion, initiatives such as Startupbootcamp, which has developed the world’s largest network of fintech accelerators, and where Mashreq is a key partner, is a fantastic way to stimulate the fintech ecosystem in the region, by bringing together financial institutions, mentors and local, and regional startups on one platform.

Furthermore, as we invest in fintechs, we also gain a stake in fast-growing technology companies. These investments could potentially be a source of new revenue streams and allow us to serve our retail banking customers better.

At Mashreq, we are playing a leading role by supporting and encouraging fintech companies to enhance their business models, with the aim of ultimately deploying new solutions and technologies in the UAE and beyond. We currently work with several fintechs that deliver tailored solutions to problems. In turn, we provide them the real world use-cases, which allow them to industrialise and scale up.

Dubai has been working towards the goal of being the preferred investment destination for foreign capital. How do you assess the success of these efforts?

The government has a strong focus towards encouraging more businesses to operate in the country and in the last couple of years a number of regulations have been introduced enabling investors to seamlessly conduct their business.

The UAE climbed 10 spots to 11th place in the World Bank’s annual ease of doing business ranking in 2018, following a package of reforms in the past year that boosted the country’s economic competitiveness.

Recent changes in law that allows international investors 100 per cent foreign ownership of businesses operating in the UAE and the new visa system aimed to attract talents have special significance. Measures such as these will stimulate economic growth and drive investments across the board which is a positive sign for the economy.

6 ways banking will change the future

1. Banks will have to look beyond their conventional roles such as retail banking and wealth management. They will have to transform into one-stop shops that facilitate other finance related offerings such as insurance and even non-financial offerings, such as landscaping and interiors to provide a complete ecosystem.

2. Banks will need to embrace new technology, engineer digital experiences in order to make similar emotional connections with their customers. This is what will lead to more personalised interactions and convenience to customers in a unique way. In essence, banks in the next 10 years will adopt the model of a ‘Big Tech with a banking licence’ and develop their strategies like a tech company.

3. Banks also need to radically change their compensation, rewards and performance management systems, especially as new age recruits, many of whom might be non-banking professionals with technology background, join the ranks. Re-skilling current employees is also critical to affect meaningful cultural change.

4. Once the culture piece is in place, banks will have to adapt to new ways of working. Most banks are used to operating in silo – not just across different business units, but even within a single business unit.This must change and a structure around end to end customer journeys and an agile structure need to be adopted. If we take our example, agility at Mashreq means being more customer-centric with quicker responses to their changing needs, and much shorter time to market.

5. In the not too distant future, the bulk of banking will be organised around customer journeys and not around specific functions. Working in an agile manner will be key to shorter time to market, and the ability to be responsive to ever changing demands of the customer.

6. While banks get through these changes, they must also keep a keen eye on data security, cyber security and cyber fraud. These will represent substantial challenges and whatever platforms banks adopt, they must be both resilient and able to overcome them.