digital banking
Most of us are aware of mobile banking apps that you can download on your phone, tablet or mobile device. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The UAE’s banking sector is rapidly leading the GCC region in digital banking solutions. But what exactly is digital banking and what does it mean for the everyday consumer like you and me?

I'm going to take you on a digital journey and cut through the jargon to explore the latest developments in today’s banking sector

So, what’s digital banking all about?

The last 20 years have seen some of the most exciting developments in our everyday banking transactions. We started getting cash from machines (ATMs) with no human interaction needed. We were then told we could go online and manage our finances through banking websites, no need to go into your nearest branch to check your balance or transfer money between accounts.

The UAE’s banking sector is rapidly leading the GCC region in digital banking solutions

- Carla De Silvo

The last two to three years have then seen a global trend in banks and financial institutions adopting new technology, digitalisation and innovation in its banking solutions.

Most of us are aware of mobile banking sites and apps that you can download onto your phone, tablet or mobile device, to the more savvy digital-only banking platforms and neobanks which are completely paperless with absolutely no human interaction at all.

What are neobanks?

  • These are banks that are 100 per cent digital and use only mobile and personal capital platforms (websites).
  • They tend to have no branches and might not be as tightly chartered with the state and government regulators like the traditional financial institutions.
  • They are very much driven by technology and use artificial intelligence (AI).
  • They promise to let you do more than basic banking tasks like managing your finances, predicting activity on your account, preventing problems and creating alerts for due payments or balance issues.
Mobile banking
Neobanks are 100 per cent digital and use only mobile and personal capital platforms. Image Credit: Stock photo

Tailored banking apps to suit your lifestyle

Another newcomer to the digital banking space is lifestyle banking apps. These have been developed to suit today’s more tech-demanding millennials. They offer more than everyday banking solutions, with the provider looking at the user’s data through machine learning technology, applying their learning of customer behaviour to develop tailored offers and promotions on daily services like restaurants, beauty and shopping.

It just depends how tech advanced (or phobic) you are as a user, and what your lifestyle choices are as to whether you will be using these solutions or opting for conventional offline, branch-based banking.

Many banks also offer financial budgeting tools within their mobile applications, so you don’t need to go further afield and all your transactions can be seen seamlessly within the one app.

Many banks offer financial budgeting tools within their mobile applications.
Many banks offer financial budgeting tools within their mobile applications. Image Credit: Stock photo

5 reasons that digital banking is attractive

  1. Mobile banking offers the luxury of banking anytime and anywhere. With 24x7 access to your account summaries, you can work out whether you can afford that dress that’s on sale, right there in the shop without taking the gamble of knowing whether you have sufficient funds for those impulse buys.
  2. The ability to do online transfers between your own accounts or to other accounts or even the option to pay your bills online saves me a world of time.
  3. Paying your bills online can protect you from having your cheque being lost in the post or not arriving on time, or even having it lost via the courier you booked to deliver it.
  4. Banking apps and online sites offer many solutions that make tasks more convenient, saves time and money, both to the bank and the end-user. I recently had to cancel my debit card, and was able to instantly log in and order a new one.
  5. Another interesting development in digital banking is the use of your phone for investment banking and trading on the stock market. With your phone always by your side, you can react quickly to dynamic changes in the markets. Banks offer a diverse portfolio of products which can cater to whatever your risk appetite, whether they be lower risk savings schemes or higher risk investments. For more information, speak with your financial provider or advisor.
Paying your bills online can protect you from having your cheque being lost in the post or not arriving on time.
Paying your bills online can protect you from having your cheque being lost in the post or not arriving on time. Image Credit: Stock photo

How does digital transformation help me?

The biggest win for me is the time it saves. People want convenience, not queues and choices in how they manage their finances. The banking sector is listening to its customers and continually developing new solutions before the customer has even imagined it possible. With data costs continually decreasing across the UAE, these touch-of-a-button solutions are widely available to everyone.

Digital banking also includes financial apps

There are many loan and affordability calculators which can be useful when looking at purchasing property. Or tax preparation tools, which you can specifically tailor to your personal circumstances and home country. These are often from traditional online banking sites.

The world of apps has evolved massively over the last couple of decades. I remember my mum really struggling to understand that an “app” was simply short for application. A piece of software that runs through a web browser or offline on your computer, smartphone, tablet or other electronic device.

There are many online solutions to choose from to help your daily budget management.
There are many online solutions to choose from to help your daily budget management. Image Credit: Stock photo

When it comes to apps to help your daily budget management, there are many really cool solutions to choose from. You can download these from Apple Store or Google Playstore, depending on your device (and whether the app is compatible).

Some can be used in conjunction with your existing online bank or app, you just add in your banking details and they will integrate. Some, however, are not compatible, so be sure to check if you choose one that’s not on this list:

  1. You Need a Budget: Best for Type-A Personalities (controls debt). Lets you sync all your bank accounts into one place, allowing you to track and stay up-to-date on the go. The debt pay feature keeps you alert about your debt status. Goal tracking helps keep you on track with savings. At Dh25 a month, this app manages your income and outgoings competently. Iphone and Android accessible.
  2. Wally: Best for tracking your expenses. This app was developed here in Dubai and will track your location and record your expenses. Acts like a pocket financial advisor and can remind you of upcoming bill payments. Free to download and includes bank linking. For Iphone users.
  3. Goodbudget: Best for couples or family groups. This is like the traditional offline envelope budgeting. The free version of the app gives you 10 regular plus 10 extra envelopes and allows you to sync your budget across two devices, making it great for couples or families. Each envelope helps you to segment your expenses (ie. food, travel, entertainment, bills) and keep a track of your spending.

Decide which bank has solutions best suited to your lifestyle

Your existing bank will very likely offer various digital solutions and apps to suit your everyday needs, whether that be paperless transactions, online solutions to save you time or a different style of interaction, such as Whatsapp or Livechat direct with your bank. All these avoid the need to be physically present in the branch.

Major banks in the UAE are using customer data to understand the most common tasks and the journey of every single customer

- Carla De Silvo

Major banks in the UAE are using customer data to understand the most common tasks and the journey of every single customer. This means they can offer the right solutions and develop future solutions to fit in with your everyday banking needs.

There’s either digital-only platforms, which are being offered by both financial services providers and more recently, tech expert companies. Or the more traditional but ever evolving online banking solutions offered by your existing bank.

Islamic banks offering online solutions

Traditionally, UAE’s Islamic banks have not been as tech advanced as its global competitors. However, in order to retain customer loyalty, these banks have had to step up their service offering to keep up with the digital trend.


Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), the UAE’s largest Islamic bank, has for many years invested in the use of technology to enhance and simplify the customer’s experience. They launched paperless branches in 2014, then a state-of-the-art Mobile App in 2015. UAE nationals and residents who are previously not DIB customers can open a bank account anytime anywhere within a few minutes via the DIB Mobile App.

Dubai Islamic Bank
Dubai Islamic Bank has for many years invested in technology to enhance the customer’s experience. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Customers can also apply for credit cards and use the SmartPay facilities provided through Apple and Samsung. DIB has embraced the digital mindset and are clearly putting Islamic banks at the forefront of the UAE’s digital transformation.

Digital-only banking platforms

With fully digital banks or neo-banks, including global names like Revolut and N26, expecting to hit 35 million customers worldwide next year, it’s not surprising that the UAE is also at the forefront of this transformation.

These are targeted at mobile-savvy millennials and Gen Z customers, who prefer a digital-only banking platform with no branch interaction and a paperless solution. There are several major banks in the region that have developed sub-brands completely separate to their core banking business. They are fully personalised and continually intuitive to the user’s needs and lifestyle as we see here:

Emirates NBD – In 2017, they launched Liv - a digital, lifestyle banking app for millennials to save more and manage finances better. With an attractive 2 per cent return on account balances, customers also receive personal insights into where and how frequently they spend, helping to manage finances better.

They also offer lifestyle promotions designed around a customer’s buying history, with discounts on restaurants, getaways and activities to suit their lifestyle. Liv already has over 300,000 clients.

Emirates NBD's Liv is a digital, lifestyle banking app for millennials to save more and manage finances better. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

At the end of September 2019, ENBD also launched E20 - designed for SME businesses to access the ease and speed of digital banking.

Mashreq Neo - Also launched in 2017, its solutions are designed to suit how a customer wants to interact. All banking services are available through the mobile app and supported by a dedicated customer support team (telephone line and email).

In addition, it also offers customers access to a global shopping portal where they have access to a wide range of merchants from different countries.

Cardholders can also enjoy lifestyle promotions and offers both locally and internationally, and earn reward points against travel and leisure.

ADCB Hayyak - Another paperless, instant apply account option for customers. Those who open an account qualify for up to 250,000 ADCB TouchPoints, the bank’s loyalty programme, which can be used for flights, shopping and more. No salary transfer required. Minimum age to apply is 21.

But, it’s not just banks getting in on the digital-only action

The UAE has also for the first time started issuing licences to non-bank financial digital service companies to provide banking services. An interesting change of direction, which only highlights how the end-user is driving digital transformation rather than banks.

No longer will we just be using financial institutions to do our banking. We can now opt for a non-banking partner with tech expertise, the right digital solutions and interface to manage our finances in a clever and much more intuitive and rewarding manner.

What should I remember when I use a digital bank?

With technology moving so fast, the challenge will be for these new services to ensure they are legally compliant and risks mitigated. So, authentication and personal data security are the two things you should always carefully look at before signing up for any new banking product or service.

Tips about online banking security

  • Be vigilant of spam emails.
  • If the email just contains a link, don’t click it. If it asks for personal details, delete it.
  • If the email address looks like a popular domain such as Yahoo or Gmail, I would be suspicious.
  • If there are images or the tone of the email has a sense of urgency, eg “Act Now”, then it is probably from an attacker.
  • Don’t share private information online.
  • Update your browser to the latest version and have updated security features to keep you safe. Ensure you have the latest malware and anti-virus protection.
  • Do not use your banking password for anything else, such as your email account.
  • Pay attention to last logged in date and time.
  • Periodically review your beneficiaries to ensure only beneficiaries added by you are on your account.
Don’t share private information online. Image Credit: Stock photo

The pace of change in digital banking has been so rapid that the challenge for providers (banks, financial institutions and new players) will be to meet the growing demands of the modern customer.

If you are keen to save time and use a solution that can be accessed any time, any place, then digital banking is for you. If you prefer a human interaction and dealing with someone over the counter, then branch-based banking remains the winner.

Personally, I love the innovations we are seeing and as long as banks remember that people are not just data, then I can’t wait to see what the future holds for both day-to-day banking and the lifestyle offers that come with it.

- The writer is a financial coach and Executive Associate Partner of Finsbury Associates in Dubai