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It's Time To Shake Things Up In The UAE's Banking Sector A first-hand account of having to deal with banks as an entrepreneur in the UAE

By Alex Malouf

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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I work with the media, and on social media. I'd heard story after story about banks in the country, and how opening (and maintaining) an SME account with them was a constant process of follow-up and perseverance. I thought, it couldn't be this bad. After all, small to medium-sized enterprises are the UAE's economy. According to the country's Ministry of Economy, the SMEs represent more than 94% of the total number of companies operating in the country, and provide jobs for more than 86% of the private sector's workforce. In Dubai alone, SMEs contribute around 40% to Dubai's GDP.

But, hearing secondhand about an experience is one thing; living through it, seeing it happen before your eyes is something else entirely.

Related: Roadblocks To Innovation: UAE Small Businesses Sound Off On Working With Banks

This summer, my wife set up her own firm. The process wasn't without its hiccups (she's a Gulf national, and she registered a company through the Tajer program in Abu Dhabi), but she received her two-year license after two weeks. The next step was to open up a bank account. We must have contacted six banks, one of whom she was already banking with. We approached the others because of their SME-friendly claims.

What first struck us were the extensive terms of the banking agreements. Unless you're putting in a significant amount of starter money into your account, you'd face charges for pretty much any transaction, including simply having the account open (for some of the banks, it would have needed to be seven figures). We felt that there was little in the way of a SME-friendly account that would help budding entrepreneurs.

Let's leave this aside for now, and move to the process of opening an account. Of the six banks we contacted, only two got back to us. The first was the bank my wife was already with. The second, I feel, happened, because I had cc-ed a senior executive at the bank. We heard zip from the others. Either banks aren't responding fast enough to queries, maybe they have too much business, or there's another reason why they weren't interested in helping an SME open a new bank account.

The initial conversation was only the start. A process which takes minutes in regions such as Europe took weeks here. We had to go into the branch to sign what felt like half a tree of paperwork, we spoke to numerous people (none of whom apparently coordinate with each other), and the risk management process meant that we had to wait a week or so for our paperwork to be approved. In total, it must have taken a month to open up the account, a service for which we are paying monthly.

The whole experience has been an ordeal. And it doesn't need to be like this. It's not just that there's a huge gap between what banks in the country say about how they support SMEs, and what they do. I look at Europe, at what's happening with the wave of new digital banks, and how a business can open up an account in minutes, at how online banks are offering services such as accounting and tax services, easy access to finance, and even register your firm through them.

I understand that regulation, red tape, and other factors mean that the SME sector can be unprofitable for banks here. But, at the same time, if you're going to claim to be a supporter of this part of the economy, banks can come up with new products and services that'll both help SME owners/managers, and they will be a revenue generator. Banks can also lobby as an industry for regulatory change. At the very least, banks here can and should get their internal processes in order, so that emails are responded to, and potential customers don't have to repeat themselves countless times.

Having a bank account today is a necessity. It shouldn't need to be this hard, and costly, for SMEs. I, for one, cannot wait for digital disruption in this space. How about you?

Related: Make Yourself Heard: Four Communications Tips For Entrepreneurs In 2019

Riyadh-based Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive and expert who has spent the last two decades in the Middle East. A journalist by training, and with a cultural mix that is both European and Arabic, Alex’s expertise spans communications and media, public relations, and marketing. He has led communications for multinationals in the digital, electric mobility, energy, sustainability, technology, and fast-moving consumer goods space, while also advising  ministers and entities in the Gulf's government sector.  

An entrepreneur in his own right (along with his wife, Alex founded the first business-to-business magazines in Saudi Arabia), Alex’s experience includes corporate communications, media relations and outreach, content development, crisis/ reputation management, and digital/social media. When he’s not putting pen to paper, Alex can be found advocating for the region’s media and public relations industry as the best way to tell the region's story and build national brands. 

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