Listen to this article

Muscat: Gulf Leaders Circle (GLC) held its first roundtable event for leaders of the technology sector in Oman on the theme ‘Change Through Technology’ on Thursday May 18 at Intercontinental Muscat.

The inaugural roundtable in partnership with Microsoft, witnessed participation from key position holders in companies like Omantel, Oman Data Park (ODP), data2cloud, Bank Nizwa, NBO, and ITHCA.

The eminent speakers focused on the impact of the latest trends and offered insights on how they are adapting to the evolving business landscape and thriving in the digital age.

Aligned with Vision 2040, the discussion highlighted how these companies are creating ecosystems to help Oman become a knowledge-based and technology-driven economy.

The roundtable was moderated by Paula Colard, the Publishing Director of Gulf Leaders Circle. Here are some edited excerpts from the roundtable:

Talal Al Mamari, CEO, Omantel

How does Omantel plan contribute to the pillars of Vision 2040 and balance its growth strategy while creating new business opportunities in the sector?

Technology is a fundamental part of Vision 2040, particularly for Omantel. We believe that any technological progress must rely on establishing an ecosystem, preferably a collaborative one. Our approach has been centered around this ecosystem.

Firstly, we prioritize building a strong foundation, especially in the telecom sector. It is essential to have advanced infrastructure that enables accessibility to various technology platforms for citizens, enterprises, and the government.

The second pillar is people, and it is critical to enhance their capacity to ensure an effective ecosystem.

The third pillar in our approach involves investing in key players within the ecosystem. For instance, we have invested in companies like ODP as well as other ventures such as Future City focused on IoT, blockchain companies, and business process outsourcing. Omantel Labs plays a role in accelerating the startups in various technological spaces, and we have run two cohorts so far. We are very proud that many of these companies have graduated successfully.

The fourth pillar is academia, which is closely linked to capacity building and the people pillar. We must start from the beginning by developing appropriate curricula in schools and ensuring universities engage in sufficient R&D activities. Although academia is related to capacity building and the people pillar, it plays a key role.

Lastly, having the right regulatory and legal framework within the ecosystem is significant. Without proper regulations and laws, it becomes challenging to advance the agenda of technology and technological advancements.

The FinTech Accelerator Program provides technical support and digital lending solutions to accelerate the growth of Oman’s financial industry. What is the significance of having a reliable telecom provider for success in the FinTech industry?

The FinTech Accelerator Program is a prime example of the ecosystem I mentioned earlier. The Central Bank of Oman has implemented a sandbox within the bank to explore and enhance learning in the FinTech space. We are honoured to host this version of the central bank’s Startups and Sandbox.

Many of these startups have leveraged the network available through Omantel Labs and have identified numerous opportunities in the field. FinTech, in particular, is an emerging service that can boost Oman’s digital economy.

I firmly believe that FinTech will not entirely replace the banking sector but rather target specific underserved segments in the market. Its focus will likely be on enhancing customer experiences, without eliminating the sector altogether.

Advanced economies where FinTech has progressed further than in Oman can serve as examples. The banking sector still thrives and flourishes in those countries. Hence, collaboration is of utmost importance.

Additionally, ensuring access to talent is pivotal. While our local academia prepares the youth for active participation in these advancements, it is equally necessary to make the economy attractive to talent from beyond Oman’s borders.

It’s very important that we are as agile as possible, like we are taking risks in establishing companies, investing in startups. I think it’s very important to take, let me say, educated risk approach when it comes to regulation.

It’s very important to free up some space for companies of various sizes. From that we will hopefully have a better learning curve. As we go, we can look again at the regulation and laws that enhances effectively this ecosystem.

Tariq Atiq, Chief Retail and Digital Banking Officer, NBO

What is the importance of FinTech incubators in National Bank of Oman?

Banking, like any other business, depends heavily on meeting customer demands. After the experience the industry had during COVID, it became evident that technology adoption and digital banking were necessary to serve customers effectively.

At NBO, we prioritize digital banking as a means for our customers to conduct their banking activities. This requires collaboration and partnerships with those who can help us achieve our objectives. We embrace the presence of FinTech and actively collaborate with them to explore possibilities and work together. We appreciate the efforts of the telecommunications industry in promoting this exceptional initiative.

These areas are designed to enhance banks’ ability to serve customers better. We have witnessed innovations in payments and are engaged in numerous partnerships. As banks are heavily regulated, we have a limitation on being innovative. Therefore, we encourage younger FinTech institutions to continue innovating and creating value for banks.

How has the emergence of FinTech influenced the traditional and digital banking at NBO?

About 20 to 25 years ago, anyone in Oman seeking basic banking services had to visit a branch. Today, considering the volume of customers and daily transactions, this would not have been possible without reliance on technology and digitalization.

We have re-engineered our processes and continue to automate wherever feasible. Technology and FinTech have allowed us to increase our capacity to serve more customers with existing infrastructure. We are in the process of using artificial intelligence and robotics to help us make better decisions so that we can increase the reach of banking and help the government with their main objective of having financial inclusion.

 I believe firmly that with the use of technology and digital banking, the banks can definitely help the government to achieve its vision of financial inclusion and make banking like credit or processing of payments or collection all possible for a wider segment of public.

Maqbool Al Wahaibi, CEO, Oman Data Park (ODP)

ODP holds the data of a majority of banks in Oman. What kind of technology does ODP use to ensure data security?

We do sense the responsibility we have around hosting critical infrastructure of Oman. Our first customer was a bank, which propelled us to meet risk, compliance, scalability, and security requirements.

In terms of security, we adhere to multiple elements to comply with banks and the CBO’s regulations. Physical security involves multiple layers of screening and smart CCTVs to ensure the safety of support and services without disruption. We also prioritize logical security, employing measures such as firewalls and penetration testing to safeguard our infrastructure.

We established our own cybersecurity division to ensure compliance and manage risk effectively, including conducting extensive security tests as per regulatory requirements.

In line with Vision 2040, a strong collaboration is necessary between the finance and technology sectors. How can it be fostered?

The finance sector is highly advanced in technology, and always at the forefront of deploying relevant tech to enhance agility, performance, and customer service.

As technology partners, we see ourselves as enablers and supporters of their vision and digital transformation. Working closely with the banking sector, we strive to keep pace with their advancements.

The financial sector demonstrates a visionary approach, adopting AI, robotics, IoT, and API-based environments to connect with stakeholders beyond finance. Banks now connect with law enforcement and other external services to provide end-to-end financial experiences for customers, minimizing the need for multiple interactions. They are open to API integration and emphasize digital banking as a collaborative ecosystem of digital components.

Furthermore, ODP is also connected to applications that serve banks. We engage with application vendors to host their solutions in a cloud format, making it easier for the financial sector to benefit from economies of scale.

Investment Appetite

ODP very much has this appetite for investment around making sure that the element of the economy of scale is there in order to ease and to turn the equation from being purely capital investment from the financial sector side into opex. That not only provides you with a quick go-to-market aspect, but then it also maintains a good quality of service while you are actually having a moderate expenditure over a time span or a total cost of ownership of 5 to 10 years.

So we are serving the financial sector directly, but then indirectly, we are also investing in solutions that will serve the financial sector. An example is our financial services along with Omantel, ODP invests in solutions such as the Arab Financial Services that serve the financial sector.

Our approach includes investing in solutions that provide a quick go-to-market aspect and maintain service quality, while also delivering cost-effectiveness and the benefits of economies of scale.

Mujahid Said Al Zadjaly, General Manager, I.T. and Operations, Bank Nizwa

How does Bank Nizwa plan to position itself in the market while balancing its growth strategy?

Looking at the statistics before we jump into the strategy, the global payment is expected to grow towards 11 trillion and the AI interactions are going to control almost 95% of these. FinTech market is expected to grow around USD 300 billion, hopefully within three years.

Looking at these digital initiatives, we think there is a need to introduce enhanced digital products and services which are powered by digital platforms in order to cater to the demands of our customers and to give a frictionless and spontaneous and instant journey to the customers while they are performing their transactions.

All of these enhancements, the banking sector is planning needs to be available now on digital platforms. Now the expectations from customers are no longer to visit the branches. They want to be self-reliant line. They want everything to be done on their app, on their Internet banking services.

Creating a frictionless and instantaneous journey for the customer will definitely boost the business growth and the customer experience.

Assad Al Saadi, CEO of data2cloud

Data centre security is a top priority for protecting sensitive data. An example of this is data2cloud’s new data centre in Muscat. How important is it to have a centralized data centre, and how does it impact the quality of services?

data2cloud is keen to play a prominent role when it comes to digital transformation in Oman and take into consideration the future vision of 2040.

Expanding our data centre presence in Oman is a part of our long-term strategy to ensure geographic and zonal availability. We strive to provide data centres that adhere to international standards in terms of security, technology, and service quality for our current and potential clients. Service level quality is a key factor that sets us apart in providing services to end users.

We constantly monitor market demands and cater to high-demand industries such as finance and energy. Although the financial sector is more technologically advanced, we are making sure that we are in line when it comes to the standards they are implementing, especially in the security side.

We focus more on technology and how industries can benefit from it in terms of cost optimization and our efficient service delivery. That’s why we are building up partnerships with the leaders who have the knowledge to provide authentic solutions for the finance and other sectors. We aim to introduce (these) within the coming period because we believe that technology should go hand-in-hand with the financial side to make sure that the level of service and the customer experience is a priority.

Badr Al Mandhari, VP Strategy, ITHCA

What kind of investment does ITHCA aim to attract and how can the ICT sector benefit from it?

ITHCA group was created by the Oman Investment Fund to be their strategic investment arm in the ICT sector.

Our investment focus is mainly on emerging tech, such as artificial intelligence, IT, smart cities, blockchain data analytics, and data science, as well as enablers like cloud services, cybersecurity, and other technologies.

First, we make direct investments in companies that are already in the growth phase and require support to expand in the Omani market and into other regions. Then, we invest in venture capital funds to support Omani startups and develop Omani fund managers.

As for the benefits to the ICT sector, addressing key gaps in the ecosystem is important. Emerging technologies cannot work in isolation, so by investing strategically, we aim to maximize the potential of the ICT sector and its contribution to the GDP.

We expect that these technologies will lead the sector’s growth in the next decade, with a major economic impact. By investing in them, we also enable our talents to work on niche technologies, and we believe Oman has the potential to develop its ICT talents.

What should be the focus of the ICT industry to accelerate digital transformation?

Emerging technologies and their enablers are expected to show the highest growth rate within the ICT sector, both internationally and within Oman.

For example, the Omani ICT sector is expected to grow at around 6% annually from 2023 to 2030. However, emerging technologies are projected to grow at a rate of 24%, which is the highest.

To accelerate digital transformation, several critical elements need to be addressed. Firstly, having the right leadership at the C-level or board level is essential, as digital transformation is a business issue, not just a technical one.

Secondly, ensuring a resilient, reliable, and efficient ICT infrastructure, including connectivity, cloud services, and data centres, is vital.

Thirdly, supporting the innovation system is vital, and our investment in emerging tech directly supports the innovation ecosystem in Oman, enabling organizations to explore new business models and introduce new streams.

Lastly, having a supportive regulatory environment that fosters innovation and collaboration among stakeholders is essential. User experience is also a key factor as well as providing seamless and efficient experiences, combined with robust cybersecurity measures.

Importance of Collaboration

Bringing together industry leaders from Omantel, Oman Data Park (ODP), data2cloud, Bank Nizwa, NBO, and ITHCA, the roundtable saw the affirmation of the importance of collaboration, ecosystem building, and regulatory frameworks to foster innovation, support startups, enhance data security, and provide seamless digital experiences to customers.

By embracing technology and fostering strong partnerships between the finance and technology sectors, Oman is well-positioned to achieve its goals and create a prosperous future.

GLC is an exclusive premium business offering by Muscat Media Group. It aims to build a valuable knowledge database by examining industry leaders, insights, and decision-makers. Its mission includes fostering stronger connections among GCC businesses through roundtables, conferences, and symposiums, enhancing relationships within the Gulf countries, with a particular focus on Oman.