What was the driver behind the establishment of Mala'a, and what role does it play in Oman?
AADIL AL SAADI The idea behind Mala'a and its three-year plan is to transform credit bureau services in Oman by establishing a data bank that offers a numbers of digital services. This includes services that were previously handled by the central bank. The ultimate goal is enabling financial inclusion, managing credit risk, improving the quality of credit portfolios, and enhancing access to finance. The biggest challenge that Oman faces as we speak is the fragmentation of information, so the idea was to establish one national data bank that is cross-functional and serves as the one cohesive reference point for the entire country. In this way, we provide a credit enquiry service for our members and serve as a reference for any national decision-making. Starting a databank in Oman for the first time is a futuristic project, and there are some challenges, unknowns, and limitations; however, we have all the ingredients for success. For traditional players such as banks, this is a revolutionary step, and it is completely new for our members. The biggest obstacle we are seeing is the change in management to take that step forward, although there are also many changes required from a technical and policy point of view.
How will QR technology evolve in the retail sector?
MAJID ALAMRI The central bank is a big supporter of QR technology, as evident from the release of the new mobile clearing system. In 2018, Thawani started offering QR code payments in Oman. We support both dynamic and static codes. We have also developed a local cross-platform application that can run on any platform, including those used by terminal stores to manage orders and sales. As a result, we no longer have to sell devices to merchants. This platform has further reduced costs. Our goal is to make this technology available to everyone with the final aim to make the market more agile and efficient. We never release a product without conducting a survey. The majority of the products we offer satisfy the needs of the market. Currently, we are testing some initiatives with some public- and private-sector partners. Usually, it is hard for start-ups to penetrate the market. We always try to make sure our partners and sponsors take risk-free decisions. We just need cooperation to test our technology.
How is Mala'a planning to move forward?
AAS The first phase consists of shifting the existing 25 members of the credit industry—20 local and foreign banks and five financing companies—to the Mala'a databank. Our first priority is to expand our membership to the three SME funds: Riyada, Sharakah, and the SME Development Fund. Our second major priority, which will be a game-changer, is to launch credit scores for both consumers and corporates. This will allow lenders to look at a customer's profile and credit worthiness as a whole and give them a loan. In the second phase, we will analyze requirements for non-banking members, such as players in the telecom sector and ISPs. Then, we seek to tap into the insurance sector, which is new territory with a wealth of information. Next, we will integrate with data providers, such as Royal Oman Police, ministries, the Secretary General for Taxation, and the Ports Authority. Then, we will move to digital services. Locals or those who have a valid ID will be able to download our app and view their credit report.
What challenges does a new fintech face in Oman?
MA The first challenge is to comply with all the regulatory requirements. Although Oman is a small market, it has a well-established banking sector. All the 23 banks in the country are trying to enhance their offerings. Unless the private sector gives start-ups a chance to test, fix, and improve new technologies, it will be challenging to do something new in Oman. At Thawani, we are trying to focus on direct retail. For conventional solutions, the cost is huge, but we are able to provide tailor-made solutions to our clients. Unless the entire ecosystem works together, there will be additional challenges. For example, we have a list of merchants that are not able to get onboard because of excessive bureaucracy. These are small challenges, but they all have a significant impact on our growth. We propose solutions to a wide variety of challenges; however, there is a missing link because we are trying to solve some of these issues by sending proposals and talking to regulatory bodies and decision makers, not operational bodies. We meet with start-ups in Oman and transparently highlight the challenges and discuss how to get around them.