GCC firms should focus on digital change: QIB chief

6 min read
Bassel Gamal, Group CEO, Qatar Islamic Bank.
  • "Today, all GCC economies are recovering from the pandemic thanks to higher oil prices, supporting government spending and normalizing business activity."
  • "The leadership has shifted towards a more collaborative approach, fostering teamwork, productivity, innovation and creativity."

Bassel Gamal has been the Qatar Islamic Bank’s Group CEO since February 2013, with over 30 years of experience in the banking and finance industry. He’s currently the Chairman of QIB-UK and a Board Member of Qinvest.
His career started with Commercial International Bank (Chase National Bank) in Egypt, in 1990 where he worked for more than a decade. In 2001, he joined Ahli United Bank Group in Bahrain, where he held many positions, the last of which was Senior Deputy Group CEO – Banking Group He was Ahli Bank’s Deputy CEO in Qatar from 2004 until 2006, at which point he moved on to become the CEO until early 2009.
Established in 1982, Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB) is the largest Private Bank in the country and the second-largest of all banks.

In an interview with TRENDS, Bassel Gamal said that while the GCC economies were recovering from the pandemic, business leaders in the region would need to push innovation and develop human capital while staying aware of sustainability concerns and needs. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

What are the main challenges for business leaders today, especially in our region?

Uncertainty is the word to describe the last 24 months. The Covid pandemic disrupted our daily lives and business cycles and brought along a continued uncertainty about the timeline of going back to normality and the global business recovery. 

Today, all GCC economies are recovering from the pandemic thanks to higher oil prices, supporting government spending and normalizing business activity. Corporates, in general, are seeing a gradual recovery with only specific sectors, such as aviation and hospitality, being still under pressure. 

Looking specifically into the banking sector, banks in our region have weathered the crisis well based on their strong capitalization, low-cost structures and government support programs for the affected sectors of the economy. As future growth remains dependent on government spending and oil prices, the expected hikes in central banks rates will further support banks’ earnings.

On the downside, the risk of an uncontrolled resurgence of the pandemic which will deteriorate the pace of the economic recovery is still a possibility while the full impact of the recent difficulties in the real economy on asset quality remains to be seen. 

Within this context, business leaders in all sectors will have to continue or start on an urgent basis the digital transformation of their organizations as the change in customers’ adoption of e-commerce and digital/remote products and services is here to stay. 

Thus, digital transformation and cybersecurity remain among the biggest business opportunities and challenges in terms of creating a culture of innovation and adopting new technologies.

At QIB, we started significant investments in technology as early as 2014. Those investments quickly developed into a bank-wide digital transformation program with the primary objective of significantly improving our customer experience, modernizing the bank’s offerings and contributing positively to the bank’s results.

Another challenge would be how to manage, motivate and retain an increasingly mobile workforce that isn’t emotionally or otherwise bound to a specific physical location. 

How business leadership has evolved in the pre- and post-digital world?

The new digital world has changed everything when it comes to customers’ expectations and how they demand to be served. Banking services need to be always on (24/7), remotely available (mobile app) and instant. Customers have seen those changes in other industries and demanded the same from their banks. 

To manage this change, leaders need to be familiar with the impact of technology on their business and be highly adaptable when it comes to business practices and new operating models.

 Furthermore, leadership has shifted towards a more collaborative approach, fostering teamwork, productivity, innovation and creativity.

Take, for example, the emergence of FinTech companies which adds both opportunities and challenges to the financial sector. Many banks seeking innovation are partnering, in many different ways, with FinTech companies that offer new, “out of the box” solutions. 

However, the way FinTech executives are thinking and working is very different when compared to a traditional banker’s approach – they bring with them agile ways of working, innovation, speed as well as risk-taking and learning through trial and error experiments.

What business leaders should do to push for innovation in their teams and young Arab leaders? 

Innovation is the backbone of every successful company. In the workplace, innovation also comes with a set of benefits including higher employee satisfaction and improved staff retention.

To encourage innovation in the workplace, leaders should empower their employees to make decisions, and set the right role model example for them to follow. 

To further foster a culture that encourages creative thinking, at QIB we have adopted agile ways of managing our transformational projects. It relies on high frequency, iterative improvement, encouraging flexibility and quick responses to feedback by all team members participating in daily and weekly cross-functional meetings (“agile ceremonies”).

We are also actively participating in the FinTech Hub initiative led by the Qatar Central Bank in coordination with the Qatar Development Bank and the Qatar Financial Center. This is a center for financial innovation where bankers, regulators, advisors as well as end customers get together to hear new ideas from young entrepreneurs and local/regional and international start-up companies. Prototypes and proof of concepts are then co-developed and the participating FinTechs are being coached by experienced bankers on how to promote and further develop their solutions. 

Is it necessary for a CEO to have a technology background? 

Some of the best CEOs in this century had no technology background, including some of the leading tech companies. At the same time, many executives leading digital transformation programs at their respective companies have a business rather than a technical background. A CEO needs is to have the skills to identify and hire the necessary personnel to cover the shortage of skills or gaps wherever is needed in the organization.

What are the major changes and trends you see in your industry in the next five years?

As discussed, the current trend in the banking industry is its full digitization and the adoption of new-age technologies. Going beyond automation, speed, convenience and efficiency, new technologies and solutions in the space of artificial intelligence and machine learning will further personalize and revolutionize how banking services are delivered and consumed. 

At the same time, climate change is undoubtedly humankind’s most pressing challenge and as ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) concerns grow, banks are being urged to become “guardians” of the planet.  

At QIB, we have developed our long-term Sustainability strategy aligned with Qatar’s National Vision 2030 and the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals. With our new ESG framework as a guide, important elements of our strategy include the full integration of ESG criteria into our financing & investment policies.

What steps would you recommend for building a strong Arab/GCC Human Capital?

All GCC countries have developed ambitious, long-term national visions with emphasis on the need to diversify their economies, away from fossil fuels and build stronger private sectors. With the recent emphasis on sustainability around the globe, our region is at the crossroad of environmental, economic and social transformation and within this context, the future of the region depends to a great extent on its success in fostering the new generations.

It will be equally important for governments to invest in formal education around new areas of knowledge and development.

Some of these important areas include creating a work culture that encourages creativity, providing ongoing coaching and training wherever necessary, and approaching learning as an investment in success rather than as a cost to be minimized.