After almost 20 years as a tech leader in UAE banking, Hajar Almaazmi is no stranger to change. The financial services sector has for a number of years been undergoing a period of digital transformation and disruption, as banks look to both compete and cooperate with up-and-coming fintech services, and struggle to keep up with the demands of a digital-savvy public.
Almaazmi’s career has put her in the centre of this transformation. In 2008, she left Sharjah Islamic Bank, where she was IT project manager, for a new opportunity with a bank that had not even begun operations yet: Ajman Bank, the first Islamic bank incorporated in Ajman. Starting as head of IT projects, Almaazmi rose in the ranks to become vice president and head of IT four years ago.
The absence of women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a big concern in many countries. However, in certain countries in the Middle East, women are well represented in tech. According to UNESCO, 34%-57% of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women, even reaching 59% of total students enrolled in computer science courses in Saudi Arabia, while the figures in the UK and US were 16% and 14%, respectively.
The positive trend for women in tech in Arab countries, however, is not necessarily reflected in the ranks of upper-management IT leaders who are steering digital transformation projects in large companies. But during the last few years, this is what Almaazmi has done — she and her team have embarked on a holistic digital transformation journey targeting both front and back office operations.
Back-office overhaul results in cost savings
“Our initial back office transformation has resulted on a yearly savings of one million dirhams [$272,000] through the digitization of the teller area, where customers will use tablets instead of printed forms. This shows, as well, Ajman Bank commitments to the environment, go-green, and paperless,” Almaazmi says.
These initiatives at the branch and teller areas enhanced the customer experience by reducing turnaround time for related operations by 40%. In addition, automation of bank reconciliation processes, which had been completely manual, moved the process from next-day to real-time completion, eliminating the need to dedicate two full-time employees to the job.
These moves were necessary to keep up with the competition and the changing requirement of customers. The Middle East is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions in the banking sector.
Islamic banking generally refers to bank systems that are compliant with Islamic religious law, Sharia, and which typically profit through equity participation rather than charging interest. Consumer technology penetration in the Middle East, though, is similar to most developed countries. Customers continue to change their behaviour and adopt different ways of interacting with service providers, finding new ways to use their devices and technologies.
IT evolution requires multiple components
Ajman Bank has incorporated a number of new systems into its business and transaction processes. “In Ajman Bank we have implemented one of the best core banking systems — Temenos T24 — where we have been utilizing all its consolidated capabilities,” Almaazmi says. “Then, we started moving to a best of breed approach,” for specific high-demand operations.
For example, the bank has deployed 01 Systems technology for voucher control and SmartStream Technologies software to automate bank reconciliation procedures. In addition, Ajman Bank has implemented the Samsung Pay and e-wallet service, which allows users of its credit cards to pay for items by wirelessly transmitting relevant information from supported Samsung mobile phones to merchant point of sale systems.
“Samsung Pay is one of the digital transformation milestones to achieve better customer experience and provide various advantages to customers for seamless payments,” Almaazmi says. “As a matter fact the implementation of Samsung e-Wallet resulted in a 5% increase in card customers and 10% increase in card transactions.”
UAE PASS adopted for authentication
Ajman Bank customers also can benefit from the instant authentication feature of UAE PASS to access the bank’s mobile app. Launched at the GITEX Technology Week Exhibition 2018, UAE PASS is a national joint initiative between the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority and the Smart Dubai public administration programme. It aims to provide quick and easy digital access to government and non-government services.
It’s essentially a national digital identity and signature systems that enables UAE nationals and residents to identify themselves to government and other service providers in all emirates through smartphone-based authentication, and also enables users to sign documents digitally with a high level of security. Ajman Bank was one of the first banks in the UAE to adopt UAE PASS. “Customer digital identity is a key for any online and mobile journey, hence it becomes very essential for us to integrate with such initiatives,” Almaazmi says.
Pandemic forces big changes on workforce
Like CIOs globally, Almaazmi faced a challenge during the pandemic. During the early phase of Covid-19, bank management needed to take alternative approaches to carrying out banking operations safely, as well as to maintain staff safety.
The day after pandemic precautions such as lockdowns were declared in the UAE, 100% of bank IT staff was working remotely “to ensure proper and effective support for smooth business operations,” Almaazmi says. “We facilitated 30% of business staff to work remotely within one week, with VPN and external mail, and immediately adopted and implemented cultural changes like virtual meetings, remote collaboration using enterprise WebEx and WebEx Teams, to continue business operations.”
In order to expand capabilities for remote work, Ajman Bank also implemented Citrix Workspace to allow up to 70% of its staff to work remotely, and introduced BYOD guidelines, including appropriate security implementations for laptops.
As the pandemic crisis abates, Almaazmi is planning the next big moves for Ajman Bank. UAE PASS will be an essential component in expanding digital services for customers.
“We plan to move to the next step of using UAE Pass for customer on boarding, account opening and requesting finance — it is very strategic for us,” Almaazmi says.