What have been some of the other major highlights across your operations over the past year? How have market challenges affected the demand for your various services?
Despite current economic conditions, I am proud to say that ahlibank has been resilient and swift in ensuring that banking services remain uninterrupted whilst business processes and digital infrastructure are continuously being strengthened. Although we faced serious market challenges, our continuous initiatives to mitigate the impact of the pandemic have compelled us to double our efforts in maintaining the Bank's status quo and specially ensuring that the demand for our services is not heavily affected. The developments and achievements of the past year are the result of these efforts. As for the major highlights of the past year, ahlibank has increased its branch network to 31 branches by opening 3 Conventional and 3 Islamic branches in different parts of the Sultanate. ahlibank has also signed an agreement to offer Tasdeed services and also there are innovative payment solutions already available on the Bank's corporate online banking platform—ahlinet. As a testament to our customer-first ethos, we introduced several special offers, deals and discount programs with our contactless credit cards. We also launched the Imtiyaz account, which offers enhanced banking services through a package of specially designed benefits to suit customers' contemporary lifestyles, the youth account, MyChoice, which caters to the working youth, and the Istqrar account, which is dedicated to the retiree segment. I am also pleased to share that as we continue on our remarkable growth journey, ahlibank has embarked on an ambitious expansion of its headquarters in Al Wattayah, aiming to position it as a center of innovation. The expansion project will contribute to creating a proper and stimulating work environment to enhance the performance of our human resources and promote a sustainable balance between our social responsibility and the growth of our business activities.
As Oman's Vision 2040 entails a range of targets which will require financing of PPPs, SMEs and sustainable businesses, where are the main opportunities for the banking sector within this economic environment?
The banking sector in Oman has always played an important role in the country's economy. It has significantly contributed to the expansion of the business activities of enterprises, companies and individuals, strengthening of the development process and the improvement of the country's infrastructure. It has also opened doors for global financial activities and partnerships. As the government has focused economic initiatives on encouraging increased active participation from the private sector and on supporting SMEs under its Vision 2040, this spells a positive development in terms of increased opportunities for the banking sector and vice versa. I believe that whilst the government is continuously developing various programs to set up units that will be given support, it is placing more confidence in the banks to continue to play an imperative role in the sector's development. Where opportunities are concerned, this will allow banks to offer increased financing options through facilities, products and services to local entrepreneurs and businesses. On a bigger scale, these financing solutions and increased support to the development and growth of the private and SME sector will generate more employment, create skilled workers and ultimately contribute to the country's GDP. Our aim is to help businesses reach their fullest potential and realize their growth vision by offering customized product packages, responsive services and access to expert financial advice.
How are digital services shaping the traditional retail and wholesale banking sector and how can banks like ahlibank stay ahead of the innovation curve? How do you assess the impact of fintech on the banking industry in Oman?
The pandemic has accelerated businesses' shift to digital technology and has sort of “imposed” the digital transformation in almost, if not all, the industries. In the banking sector, I believe most of the banks are moving swiftly towards upgrading their digital infrastructure, systems and services in order to adapt to the changing needs of its customers and to the rapidly changing business and economic landscape. We have been continuously investing in improving our digital capabilities, upgrading our systems, and strengthening our financial technology and infrastructure. We are continuously upgrading our mobile banking applications and enhancing our online banking platforms, such as B2B platform, e-channels and internet banking, to fully streamline our services and improve service efficiency while putting in place safety and cybersecurity measures. I believe that banks in Oman are gradually adopting the digital transformation in their businesses and operations. Apart from improving internal systems and processes, it is necessary to collaborate or partner with digital service providers, IT or fintech companies to boost their digital capabilities. As to the impact of fintech on Oman's banking industry, I think that it has allowed banks to offer better customer experiences through contactless transactions, mobile and internet banking and real-time transactions. The Central Bank of Oman has introduced new regulatory frameworks and approaches for the development and enhancement of innovation in the financial sector as well as designed initiatives to push forward the digital transformation journey in the financial industry and ahlibank is fully committed to support these initiatives.
How do you think CSR positively affects/impacts the success and sustainability of the Bank?
Apart from the effect of ahlibank's CSR initiatives and activities on the environment and its impact on the society, they play a significant role and contribute a great deal to the Bank's successful operations as well as to its positive financial performance and standing. Ours is both an ethical and strategic approach, where the fulfillment of our social responsibility is simultaneously benefiting our bottom line. A contributing factor is the level of awareness and involvement of our stakeholders in the enforcement of good corporate governance, as we believe that we have a responsibility towards them. Parallel to this is the ongoing integration of sustainability into our business and operations, in our policies, strategies, processes, products and services, which is proving to be a value driver. As a whole, ahlibank's CSR initiatives are centered on customer needs and satisfaction, customer relations, social-specific issues on supporting the community.
How do you assess the financial sophistication of the youth in Oman and their ability to plan their finances? How would their behavior affect the banking sector at large in the medium term?
The savings habits amongst the youth in Oman is comparatively low. This is due to the limited financial products and channels that encourage saving and investing. In order to create this culture, we need to provide access to proper information and introduce a savings and investment culture accompanied with viable products and digital channels in order to attract youth towards savings. A large percentage of Oman's population is composed of young people. As part of the Government's economic plan and vision, the focus is on investing in the development of the youth as the future leaders of the country. The introduction of our MyChoice segment is intended to open up several options for youth, assist them in planning their finances and presenting them with the real benefits of saving and its value in the long run.
Do you think the market is reaching a saturation point when it comes to the number of banks servicing the population?
The banking and finance sector plays a pivotal role in the progression of an economy. As in any business sector, there is no “saturation point” for the number of businesses, companies or establishments operating in that sector. As the population rises, there is a much greater demand for products, services and resources. This, in turn, dictates the need for more product and service providers, consequently, the need for banking services increase, which in turn will create more economic and social opportunities and the greater the contribution the banking sector will have to the growth of the economy.
Where do you see room for growth in the medium term and what strategy has the bank put in place to expand in those directions?
ahlibank bases its strategies on customer needs and on the direction of the government's economic initiatives and plans. We see growth in areas or sectors where there is increased demand or requirements, where business and investment opportunities are emerging. We are also looking at sectors such as project finance, infrastructure sites, food security, the private and SME sector. We have put in place plans to ramp up our product and service offerings that cater to niche segments, widen our branch network and enhance and strengthen our digital infrastructure. We also plan to continue with financing and funding small and large-scale projects and increase our involvement in CSR initiatives and activities.