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How Digital Transformation Is Changing Banking

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Gulf Insider spoke with Samih Abutaleb, Group Head of Digital Transformation, Ahli United Bank one of the biggest financial firms in Bahrain, on how they approach digital transformation.

What is the greatest threat facing the banking industry today?

Abutaleb: Customer expectations present a valuable opportunity for organizations in the banking industry. Some might consider them the greatest threat facing the industry, but at Ahli United Bank we have always strived to service our customers with the best and latest technology available, thus enabling us to make the most out of the ongoing wave of digital transformation by putting the customer first.

Previously, businesses had the luxury of dictating the time, place and method to conduct business with their customers while today customers expect to interact with their service providers at their own convenience through multiple touchpoints. This shift is driving the banking industry to transform to enhance their customer experience and add value to their services.

This opportunity comes at a time when the market in Bahrain is ripe for change, with excellent Government support through initiatives such as Bahrain FinTech Bay, the largest FinTech hub in the MENA region, and a pioneering regulator that is working to develop an advanced regulatory environment that supports FinTech innovation.


What does digital transformation mean to you and Ahli United Bank?

Abutaleb: Digital transformation is about change and speed. The banking industry is very competitive, and we need to keep up with smaller, more nimble financial firms, including FinTechs, as well as the larger established ones. We are approaching digital transformation by evolving IT and how we engage with our bank stakeholders. This means identifying new IT-business working models and identifying new technologies. We are continually driving innovation to meet business objectives.

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What are the roles and responsibilities of the digital team?

Abutaleb: Ahli United Bank introduced a digital team to work with business units and understand their goals. The digital team is also responsible for engaging with other financial services companies to understand best practices and see how they are innovating. From there, we put together a plan that goes from developing new products to new distribution methods and increasing the efficiency of IT.

Strong internal engineering capabilities


We brought in new competencies around engineering as it is now the core of what we do. And we embraced agile IT to enable delivery, which meant organizing it around small multi-disciplined teams (squads) and empowering them to make decisions. We also introduced product owners from the business to work in our IT squads.

Cloud-native application architecture

The success of cloud-native companies like Google and Amazon is driven by their cloud-native software development methods. These companies are agile, move quickly, and we want to replicate what they do. With major improvements to our application architecture, we aim to have less than 10% of our applications remain legacy within three to five years.

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Modernized infrastructure
We need to implement a next-generation infrastructure to enable our complex IT environment. IaaS and PaaS services are good for this, in Bahrain, banks can use public clouds and we want that level of agility, so we built our own cloud strategy to completely own open-source tools and easily shift our environment over. The private cloud will give us the ability to scale up and down as needed.

Integrated security
Information security must be embedded into all our processes and products including new technology, but more importantly, continuous user training. Ahli United Bank employees are much more aware of phishing risks through training and simulated phishing attacks.

How are Ahli United Bank driving innovation internally?


As with any major transformation within an organization, Executives’ buy-in and management support is critical. At Ahli United Bank, we have tremendous support from our Board of Directors and Group CEO as they believe technology is at the core of the bank, and it will help us continue our success as one of the leading banks in the region. A culture of innovation that is championed by leadership and cascaded through the organization is the fuel powering our digital transformation journey.


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