As Bahrain’s digital transformation accelerates, investment in and support for tech start-ups increases and new regulations facilitate ever more innovative digital solutions in industries including finance, healthcare and telecommunications. There is a growing need for established players to build solutions that bring everything together in simple, easy-to-navigate packages for consumers.

Long-standing telecommunications provider Batelco is leading the way. Established in 1981 as a telecommunications company, over recent years the company has begun the journey of transforming itself into a technology company. “We were seeing all of this great growth from a digitisation perspective,” explains Shaikh Mohamed Al Khalifa, chief digital growth officer at Batelco, who is in charge of the company’s technology investments.

“Fintech companies were popping up left and right and citizens were starting to interact with them, but the complexity of the finance ecosystem was growing. On the one hand, customers were comfortable to maintain their relationships with their banks, and on the other hand, they wanted to engage with services that were much more focused on giving them the best experience.”

Simplifying consumers’ financial lives

In response to this demand, Batelco created two new digital companies. Fintech company Beyon Money is a financial services app that helps customers manage all their bank accounts in one place, pay bills, send funds abroad instantly and access personal financial insights.

“We wanted to break that complexity and allow users to make more sense of it by providing an interconnected environment for legacy financial service institutions and fintech companies to exist side by side,” Al Khalifa explains.

Batelco also launched Beyon Connect, which provides highly secure identity platforms, as well as digital mailboxes that enable efficient communication between public authorities, citizens and businesses. “As digitisation increases, not only are people receiving information from multiple sources, but they have to create new identities everywhere they go,” Al Khalifa notes. “At the same time, businesses are struggling to invest the amount of money needed to bridge the digitisation gap.

“With Beyon Connect we were focused on both streamlining how citizens get information but giving businesses the tools they need to bridge the digitisation gap in a simple way. The question I always ask my team is: how do we reach a point where it cannot be any easier for a business to take their customer remote and completely cut off any physical points of interaction? That is what we have built our products around.”

Regulators and government agencies: open to suggestions

Batelco’s decision to launch its digital footprint in Bahrain wasn’t only based on its deep understanding of the market, although that was one contributing factor. “Our mandate is to invest in places where it makes sense to invest,” Al Khalifa stresses. After exploring options across the region, Bahrain made the most sense partly because of its forward-thinking approach to regulation.      

Bahrain was the first Gulf nation to deregulate its telecoms industry in the 2000s, stimulating a competitively priced market offering high-quality services. It has since achieved nationwide 5G services. It was also the first country in the MENA region to adopt a cloud-first policy, which launched in 2017. In addition, in December 2018, Bahrain became the first country in the region to mandate the adoption of open banking by all banks, enabling new standards for digital banking services. “Beyon Money wouldn’t have been possible had the laws in the country not already accommodated it, so from that standpoint it was a quick and easy decision,” Al Khalifa says.

More importantly, though, the openness of regulators and other government agencies including the Economic Development Board made the process of transforming from a telecommunications provider to a digital player relatively seamless for Batelco. The ‘Team Bahrain’ approach brings together experts, influencers and decision-makers in a coordinated approach across the public and private spheres. When challenges did arise during this process, they were quickly resolved with regulators in an open, flexible manner.

As Al Khalifa recalls: “On paper, innovative regulations sound great, but in practical terms, when you go and try to operate within that regulatory environment, there are natural learnings that a person writing down regulation on paper won’t have thought of. When we challenged the regulator to rethink things, they were open to those conversations, and as a result, we have always managed to shift regulations in a way that makes it better for the ecosystem as a whole.”

Bahrain: a testbed for technology platforms

Adoption of Beyon Money and Beyon Connect by both businesses and consumers has surpassed Batelco’s initial projections. Within a two-month period, six banks had signed up to Beyon Money and a number of organisations are already making use of Beyon Connect. From a consumer perspective, people have enjoyed being able to access all their financial institutions on one platform and reduce the complexity of managing their financial life.

Looking ahead, Beyon Money will release new major features every month in response to conversations with customers, and Batelco also plans to use Bahrain as a testbed to enhance both platforms before expanding them to the rest of the region. This will all be implemented against the backdrop of the country’s comprehensive Economic Recovery Plan. One of the plan’s key pillars is to develop strategic priority sectors including the telecommunications, ICT and digital economy sector with a strategy focused on further developing the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, supporting the digital economy, enhancing e-governance and developing Bahrain’s digital capacity. Already, Bahrain has the highest mobile penetration rate in the world at 121%, and this is only set to increase.

“Bahrain has done a great job of enhancing its overall position as a digital destination and we are proud to be part of that ecosystem,” Al Khalifa concludes. “We will continue to build on our heritage as a telecommunications player but also continue our journey towards becoming a technology player. Our experience in connectivity puts us in a great position to provide tools for the other companies across the ecosystem to interact with customers and make their lives easier.”