Financial Services

The Next Frontier: The future of finance in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia

November 28, 2017

Middle East

November 28, 2017

Middle East
Melanie Noronha

Principal, Policy & insights

Melanie is a principal at Economist Impact. She has over ten years of experience delivering consulting and thought leadership projects to public, private and not-for-profit organisations. Based in Dubai, she leads the Middle East and Africa team on research across a range of sectors including food sustainability, recycling, renewable energy, fintech, trade and supply chains. She is a specialist in advanced recycling technologies and international trade. She is a seasoned moderator, having chaired numerous panel discussions and presented Economist Impact's research at global in-person and virtual conferences.

Before joining The Economist Group, she was a senior analyst at MEED Insight, a research and consulting firm serving Middle East and North Africa. At MEED, she developed expertise in bespoke market studies and financial modelling across a range of sectors spanning construction, finance, power and water, oil and gas, and renewable energy. She held previous posts at the Office of the Chief Economist at the Dubai International Financial Centre and at the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. Melanie has an MSc in International Strategy and Economics from the University of St Andrews and a bachelor’s degree in business administration.


The Next Frontier: The future of finance in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia is an Economist Intelligence Unit report, commissioned by the Dubai International Financial Centre. This report explores the forces shaping the future of financial services, focusing on market, technology and policy enablers. It is based on expert interviews and desk research.

The Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region is already poised to shape financial innovation. With a combined population of over 3bn, deepening mobile connectivity, and growing prominence as a trade and investment hub, MEASA will be a source of both demand and supply for more and better financial services. For companies that move quickly, this is a multi-billion-dollar opportunity to bank on the future of a diverse region.

Some firms are at the vanguard of financial innovation, using smarter business models and the latest technologies. The rise of “challenger” providers—often from different industries, such as telecommunications and e-commerce—is bringing even more varied financial services offerings to a far larger community of individuals and businesses. This report, which draws on expert interviews and country analysis, assesses the state of finance in MEASA, the factors shaping the future of key financial subsectors, and the regulatory framework and best practices required to enable the delivery of these services.

Key findings of the report:

Gaps in financial services present an opportunity for financial companies—both traditional and nontraditional players. A growing young population across MEASA is increasing demand for digitally delivered financial services. In addition to this, women’s access to finance substantially lags behind that of men, particularly among low-income groups, as regulatory requirements for accessing formal finance, such as official ID or billing documentation, create bias against them. Even among wealthier segments of the population, many individuals remain underbanked. Taken together, this untapped potential presents an attractive opportunity for companies providing financial services. As trade and investment increase in the MEASA region, there will also be a growing market for wholesale banking and capital markets.

Overcoming a strong preference for cash in the MEASA region will be imperative to move towards a cashless economy. Across the region, the majority of utility bills, school fees and even wages are paid in cash. Building trust in digitally delivered finance will take time, despite a growing preference for it among the younger generation. A fully cashless economy may be decades away.

Blockchain has the potential to change the financial architecture in MEASA, particularly for banking. Blockchain is helping to reduce high money-transfer and exchange costs by bypassing intermediaries, and blockchain-based digital registries could tackle other problems, like land expropriation. While these applications are experimental and pose regulatory difficulties, the core technologies can help to overcome some of the challenges of the existing financial system, such as money-laundering and corruption in a cash economy. More importantly, they are expected to reduce costs for financial institutions, particularly around compliance with anti-moneylaundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) rules.

New business models are being developed to reach the “missing middle” of retail investors and medium-sized businesses. The rise in equity crowdfunding platforms and lower-cost portfolio investment products is unleashing new capital for entrepreneurs and businesses, and is giving middle-and lower-middle-income citizens the ability to become investors. Growth in the provision of credit, an increasing interest in private equity and a rise in venture capital are also helping to drive growth in the middle market.

In Islamic finance, the approach is shifting from “sharia-compliant” to “sharia-based”. The approach to Islamic finance thus far has been to adapt existing products and services so that they comply with sharia law, for instance eliminating interest charges on credit cards and loans. Enabled by technology, companies are now developing fresh products and services that follow the spirit rather than adhering strictly to the letter of sharia principles.

Governments and regulators have a crucial mandate to drive financial innovation. Governments and regulators must ensure that regulation keeps pace with advances in technology in the financial sector. There are examples across MEASA of legislation that enables a wider array of providers to enter financial services, from postal systems and telecoms companies to e-commerce platforms. Developing regulation around the latest developments, such as blockchain, will prove challenging, but governments in the region are adopting strategies to test the water. Other key roles including increasing financial literacy to ensure that widening access to finance does not lead to debt spirals, and ensuring that government payments systems are also digitised and technologically advanced, to help drive the shift away from cash.



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