BRYAN STIREWALT

Dubai 2021 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Bryan Stirewalt, CE of Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA), about the importance of staff, innovation in financial services, and the prospect of the EXPO.

What steps did you take in your organization during March to May, and what proved that you were resilient in the face of the crisis?

Our number one priority – and the reason for our resilience – is our people. We focused our immediate attention on the health, safety and well-being of our team. Ironically, and fortuitously, we carried out a business continuity stress scenario for a global pandemic in 2017. This laid the groundwork for some of the systems we had in place to improve resilience, including a laptop system versus desktop office environment and the ability to access the mainframe remotely through a secure environment. From early March, we operated with a split-team protocol where half the staff were in the office and half were working remotely. This reduced the potential contagion effects of someone testing positive for the virus. We also immediately started outreach sessions with many of our firms with a larger footprints to gauge their risk levels and to discuss potential help needed. From these early communications with stakeholders, we developed a set of regulatory relief measures that would allow remote working and ease regulatory burdens. We also waived a number of transactional fees, allowed longer times in the authorisation process to gather documents, and allowed for extensions of financial reporting dates and audit completion dates. We continue periodic outreach with the major business models of the DIFC including banking, insurance, wealth management, audit industries and law firms. Our banks are providing necessary infrastructure finance in the UAE and in the region. We are already in very early discussions with insurance firms on how to use lessons learned and better prepare for a future pandemic. The wealth management industry has also been extremely resilient as many investors have gone from a passive investment strategy to an active one.

How more important will financial technologies be moving forward? How much more room do you see for innovation and development?

For the past 10 years, since the previous crisis, the financial services industry has been investing significantly in technology. This has paid off tremendously in terms of financial and operational resilience in dealing with the pandemic. Clearly, the future of finance is based on technology. In particular, in 2020, we have seen a clear acceleration to more digitalised platforms for almost every industry. The financial services industry has to adapt to the fact that people want instant access and excellent customer service 24/7, as that is the future of the industry. The new players on the market right now are the cloud services providers, including: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Alibaba, Salesforce, and IBM. We are only beginning to see the development of the cloud services industry, and the potential benefits and risks that outsourcing brings, even with the significant advances that have taken place this year.

How do you see current government support for financial technologies from a regulatory standpoint?

In 2020, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) adopted its own data protection law, which is largely based on the EU's GDPR. I am pleased that GDPR is being used as the benchmark as that promotes some global uniformity in approaching this topic. We are still learning about data protection in terms of how to deal with the privacy of data, and what consumers want in terms of privacy. Data is extremely valuable, so there is a huge temptation to use that data in a way that consumers might not want or might not have considered. Everyone has different views on what they should be able to do with data. However, as data is the key for the world as we move forward, and data protection laws will only get tougher and likely more complex as well to unlock different segments of our lives.

How is the human capital management on that side, and do you need a great deal of reskilling, and have you taken any actions towards that?

One of the biggest successes we have had at DFSA is the launch of a Cyber Threat Intelligence Platform. We developed this platform as a public-private partnership (PPP). I am a proponent of PPPs as we move into the future. In this case, we have developed a PPP that allows firms and the government to enter cyber risks into a system and share those risks with the entire ecosystem. It has proved to be extremely effective and is catching on now as more and more people are using this system.

How has the innovation testing licence program flourished during the pandemic?

We had our largest intake ever this year, and there are more Fintech firms approaching us as we speak, wanting to provide innovative products such as robo-advice where you let an AI system take over your investment portfolio. We also have a wide number of different types of firms that want to join the DIFC for elements such as payment services, which is one of the most successfully disruptive elements of technology that we have seen so far. All of this sits within the entire ecosystem of DIFC where there is the DIFC Fintech Hive with an accelerator and incubator, and in a broader sense with Smart Dubai. One of the strengths of the UAE in general is its entrepreneurial spirit coupled with the willingness and ability to continuously reinvent our environment. This is all possible due to the leadership of the country and the ruler of Dubai's vision for the city and his ability to alter his vision as things develop, which is tremendous.

What excites you the most for the future?

The Expo excites me, and I was looking forward to being able to wander through the Expo grounds in 2020. This is now a year away, which allows the event to possibly be even better. As we think about AI and machine learning technologies, the financial services industry will be delivering products and services differently in the future than we are now. Expo will, no doubt, be a fantastic illustration of our digital future. The pandemic certainly has had negative effects but it also has positive ones as well. It has altered the way we do business, work, and from where we work. There are many people who would like to visit Dubai, so why would they not want to live here now if they can work from here too? Why not work in New York City or in London, but from Dubai? This paradigm shift might change commercial real estate in a negative way, as businesses might want smaller offices. However, it might change residential real estate in a positive way as everyone now needs a home office room with a comfortable chair and desk, so that is an exciting element for our future. I am extremely excited about sustainable finance and the green movement, as the environment is something about which I am personally passionate. Another element of the pandemic that has been somewhat positive is that the air and water is cleaner now that we have had a pause in movement around the world, which has allowed the earth to heal itself slightly. We are focusing on sustainable finance initiatives at the DFSA for the long term.