How UAE banks are staying ahead of the game

Bank customers, especially wealthy ones, are eschewing long waits at their local branch to take care of business digitally. So lenders are obliged to keep their services state of the art.

Illustration by Álvaro Sanmartí / The National
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Mussalam Al Ameri, the chief executive of Al Foah Dates, says there’s not much to choose from when wealthy customers such as himself come to pick a bank account.

With interest rates at record lows and banks offering near-identical services, the real benefits to Mr Al Ameri, who heads one of the world's largest producers of dates, include having a problem fixed quickly or good advice on investments. Like many busy high flyers, he isn't that interested in stopping by at the bank because it is too time-consuming. Instead, he does almost everything by mobile phone.

“I am dealing with everything by phone,” says Mr Al Ameri. “All my transactions I do from my mobile banking. When you are a gold member, I think there’s not much difference between the banks.”

Because of clients like Mr Al Ameri lenders are focusing their attention on offering seamless banking online or via mobile phone. And banks are also paying attention because in a low interest rate environment, they want to attract their deposits and in return tout credit cards, loans and investment products that garner handsome returns in interest and fees. As a result, banks over the past year have been bending over backwards to come up with ways to make their mobile services impressive.

Going digital has been a win-win situation for banks, with customers getting convenience and speed while banks save money. About 800 million customers globally use mobile banking, and that is expected to more than double to 1.7 billion users in the next five years, according to bank executives.

“We are firmly embracing digital technology and will soon be redefining our branches and augmenting our delivery systems to meet the developing needs of our customers,” says Tirad Al Mahmoud, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank’s chief executive.

Emirates NBD, Dubai's biggest bank, has been among the most proactive institutions when it comes to improving the functionality of its mobile phone app. In June, it unveiled a function that allows customers to deposit a cheque by scanning and sending it through a phone and reserving a place at the bank teller before arriving.

At the heart of relationships with affluent customers are the managers assigned to look after them at the bank. The level of service, however, between banks tends to vary considerably, although lenders are recognising that having someone at hand to help customers to resolve issues is one of the most important services that they prize, above the host of “perks” they offer.

“For people who have that kind of wealth, they don’t need their banks to provide concierge services,” says Tony Graham, the head of retail banking at United Arab Bank. “When they pick up the phone, they want someone to answer and they want it answered by someone sensible who knows what they are talking about.”

Mr Al Ameri, who has his principal bank account with Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB), and another with Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), says although he mostly uses his banks as a place to park his money and doesn't have any loans, from time to time he will buy shares and bonds through ADIB's brokerage.

Mr Al Ameri migrated to ADIB last year from one of the lender’s Sharia-compliant competitors because he was unhappy with the customer service. So far at ADIB, he says he has had no problems.

However, according to a recent report into bank customer experience globally from the consultancy Capgemini, many people in the UAE do. In its 2015 World Retail Banking report, it said a steep drop in rankings of the UAE made the Middle East register the biggest regional drop. The UAE CEI index fell by 8.3 points to 64.7 in 2015 from its 2013 score, making it trail Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Globally, Capgemini’s Customer Experience Index fell 0.8 percentage points in the same time frame. While banks often tout their customer service as their main selling point, and, as Capgemini noted, have also made great strides in going digital, their back offices have not kept up, meaning that customer problems cannot be resolved quickly.

“Plagued by under-investment, the middle and back offices are falling short of the high level of support found in more front offices, creating a disjointed customer experience and impeding the industry’s ability to attract retain customers,” the report says.

Banks are not blind to the problems at hand and are frank about the issues at stake.

“I don’t believe necessarily that HSBC has been known for fantastic service in this market,” says Khaled Elgibaly, the head of retail banking at HSBC in the UAE.

However, Mr Elgibaly says that since he recently took over, he’s put more measures in place to improve customer satisfaction and has seen improvements on their customer service metrics.

What the lenders offer for priority customers

The offerings for wealthy customers at banks have improved in the past couple of years as lenders bend over backwards to lure in retail clients, with more perks such as air miles put on the table as well as lower interest rates for mortgages or even concierge services such as getting official paperwork done free of charge.

To qualify for a priority bank account, most banks require a Dh50,000 salary transfer, although some will accept Dh30,000 a month or a deposit of about Dh350,000.


HSBC says it likes to step above the fray when it comes to gimmicky products. You won't find it offering perfumed credit cards to attract customers, for example. Instead, it relies on the allure of its international breadth, tight internet security and anti-fraud that alerts customers to suspicious transactions. When it comes to wealthy customers, the London-based banking giant offers a service called Premier. To qualify for it, you need to have either a deposit of at least Dh350,000 or a monthly salary of at least Dh50,000. However, if your deposits slip below Dh350,000 or its equivalent, you will be downgraded to Advance, the bank's next tier. And if you have been signed up as a Premier customer based on your salary, it's probably best not join up unless you plan to maintain a balance of Dh350,000 after 12 months. It's a big hassle to change credit cards and debit cards once you are downgraded. It is useful, however, to keep if you are planning to buy property because the bank will charge you less in arrangement fees for a mortgage.

United Arab Bank

Sharjah-based UAB takes an even simpler approach than HSBC. Tony Graham, the head of retail banking, says the lender doesn’t aspire to be Julius Baer when it comes to private banking, but it can offer services to wealthy customers that not all banks will offer here, such as buying bonds for them. The minimum ticket size for such a purchase is Dh250,000 but you are likely to get more than the 1 or 2 per cent return offered by the more retail-oriented National Bonds Company if you hold the bonds to maturity. To qualify for the bank’s priority banking service, called Sidara, you need to have a salary of at least Dh40,000 or maintain a deposit of Dh450,000. Unlike HSBC, you won’t lose your priority status if after 12 months you don’t maintain the minimum deposit.

Emirates NBD

Like most banks, Dubai's biggest has been spending a lot of money to go digital as most affluent customers are too busy to go to the bank for services. Emirates NBD has been upping the features on the bank's mobile phone app, such as depositing a cheque by mobile phone. Most of the bank's customers already do about 80 per cent of their banking transactions online. To maintain a priority account at the bank you need a monthly salary of at least Dh50,000 or a deposit of at least Dh350,000.

Standard Chartered

Like HSBC, Standard Chartered touts its international scope as one its main selling points. The emerging market specialist bank has a presence in 70 countries around the world. One seemingly unique service it offers priority customers is the ability to get a mortgage for property in Jersey or India. To qualify for priority banking at StanChart, you need to have a salary of Dh30,000 a month, assets under management of $100,000 or a mortgage of Dh2.5 million. And like HSBC, priority customers with a salary of Dh30,000 have to maintain at least $100,000 in investments or a mortgage of at least Dh2.5m to remain eligible.

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank

ADIB offers its gold customers special branches, of which there are seven, that include the complimentary use of iPads, streaming financial data and ornately designed waiting rooms. ADIB inaugurated its gold service in 2011 and to qualify for the perks, you need to transfer a monthly salary of Dh40,000 or maintain a balance of Dh250,000.

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