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FINANCIAL SERVICES | Staff Reporter, Singapore
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Everything you need to know about Singapore and Bahrain's fintech relationship

Bahrain EDB’s Khalid Saad teases developments on the Singapore Fintech Consortium and other projects.

Before Khalid Saad became Bahrain Economic Development Board’s (EDB) representative in global fintech, he made market studies, operations plans, and strategic documents as a senior consultant at Enrst & Young. He also led the implementation of a governance, risk and compliance platform in the Bahrain office and trained all their advisory staff.

Now eight years in the EDB, he has helped to expand companies in Bahrain and attract new ones. He has also helped improve Bahrain’s investment outlook. Most notably, he continues to pioneer Bahrain’s fintech partnership with Singapore and other countries through projects like the Fintech Consortium.

In an exclusive interview with Singapore Business Review, Saad teases the developments in Bahrain and Singapore’s fintech collaboration. He shares how Bahrain is stabilising as a fintech hub in its region and taking some lessons from Singapore’s example.

SBR: Tell us about your work for the EDB.

The main driver for why I actually joined the EDB is because I wanted to be in a place where I could have a direct impact on my country and help develop the economy there. The EDB is a fantastic platform for pushing advocates to make a positive economic change, to build a lot of connections locally, internationally, learn from the international ecosystem, learn from the local ecosystem and as a platform to propagate the story of Bahrain and the changes that need to be made.

SBR: What are the latest updates and development of your partnership with Singapore Fintech Consortium?

The Fintech Consortium has developed very well. It’s started at the beginning of the year. We did the advisory engagement with them, helped the central bank with some of the regulations, advice, based on best practices here in Singapore.

The Fintech Consortium was here in Singapore before the whole Fintech wave took off. They’re there from the beginning. The founder of the Fintech Consortium was one of the people tasked with establishing the Singapore Fintech Association, and the Fintech Consortium has done work with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to develop the fintech ecosystem in Singapore. That partnership has evolved. They’re now officially going to be the operator of what we call Bahrain Fintech Bay, which is a dedicated Fintech Hub, which sits right conveniently next to the Economic Development Board.

Bahrain is a small place, but you know if you put key strategic stakeholders next to each other, that will help the ecosystem's development further. With the Fintech Consortium, the idea is building a truly international platform where ecosystems could be leveraged seriously between the three.

SBR: Tell us about the Bahrain Fintech Bay project

With Fintech Bay specifically, the message that we want to give out is the following: Yes, it’s a physical space for coworking  but that’s just the real estate part. We wanted to be the beating heart for the Fintech Ecosystem in Bahrain. We wanted to leverage Fintech Consortium’s experience in ecosystem building. And then we wanted to be the platforms for the ecosystem to further pursue development of Bahrain’s Fintech Ecosystem.

So if we look at what’s been happening in the Singapore, a phenomenal amount of development has happened over the last two to three years only. We’ve seen the need to move pretty far on Bahrain within the span of one year. This development will be formally launched on 21 February 2018.

A lot of innovations are happening there. The message that we want to send out is we’re open for innovation, we want to be the platform from which the IDA pushes development and innovations to the wider region. You will see a lot of Asian fintechs and others that are interested in the Middle East plugging in the ecosystem through Bahrain.

SBR: How do you think Bahrain and Singapore benefit from this Fintech connection?

I think through Fintech, we have that fantastic ability to build the bridge between Bahrain and Singapore in a meaningful way, both from a regulatory standpoint and also the ecosystem standpoint.

We’ve already had some discussions with some Singapore-based fintechs regarding setting-up of Bahrain and using Bahrain as a hub for the region. At the same time, there are also several Bahraini companies that are interested in potentially using Singapore as a springboard from which they could tap into the wider Asian Market. I think one other development that is worth mentioning is, recently, Bahrain has adapted a cloud-first policy which I think is very important at a government level and hopefully at private sector level.

There is the main aim of moving the whole government infrastructure to the cloud. Amazon web services, for example, recently chose Bahrain as its Middle East and Africa Hub. They are going to open three availability zones which represents a significant opportunity in terms of connectivity and IT, Infrastructure, which the fintech ecosystem could develop.

SBR: What are some examples of these key takeaways that Bahrain can learn from Singapore?

We’ve seen some initiative by Singapore. They’re looking obviously at some data initiatives and open APIs. I think these are developments that are definitely noteworthy. I think the other thing is, as mentioned by the Managing Director of MAS, Ravi Menon, a blockchain corridor between Singapore and Hong Kong, and I think that’s another idea that could be explored between Bahrain and Singapore, and potentially expanding back to the region. So I think these two are very key takeaways.

It’s worthwhile to say that MAS’ Sandbox is fairly also similar to Bahrain’s Regulatory Sandbox, we’ve taken some global mapping of regulatory sandboxes and we found out that the one in Singapore, in particular, is a really robust model for Bahrain to model itself on with obviously localized characteristics. I think are the two very key takeaways.

SBR: What are the opportunities that you see in this collaboration?

The modus operandi is changing. I don’t see that there are challenges or I don’t really see it as competition but rather collaboration. I think, given that Fintech is relatively new compared to these established financial services sectors, I think there is more cooperation than challenges at this point. Singapore sits in East Asia, we sit in West Asia, there’s a big distance between the two, so I think a really meaningful collaboration is the right way, as opposed to seeing challenges or competition.

I think you can have the government-to-government talk and the regulatory talking, but with the private sectors prioritising Fintech that helps further overcome any perceived challenges and further develop this cooperation further. With this relationship with Fintech Consortium, helping Bahrain develop the Fintech Ecosystem, I think people are starting to look at it more from a cooperative angle.

SBR: Any message that you would like to send out to the readers of SBR?

I want them to know that Bahrain is open for business. If they want to come to the GCC, the Middle East and the wider region, they want to localize, they want to plug to an ecosystem and use that as a base, Bahrain is their choice. We as EDB, Central bank, and the local ecosystem are ready to help them navigate the terrain. And they are welcome and also at the same time, Bahrain is looking outward, is looking toward Singapore.  

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