A Triumphant Return

Global Finance was live in Dubai to host the 2021 Middle East Digital Banks and Innovators Awards Dinner.

For its first in-person event since the Covid-19 pandemic began, Global Finance welcomed over a hundred attendees from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Malaysia and Jordan for an exceptional dinner at the Ritz-Carlton DIFC in Dubai. Participants were eager to network face to face after several periods of lockdowns and travel restriction. Some even took a plane for the first time in months to join the ceremony.

Like elsewhere in the world, the MENA region saw new technology adoption soar under the effect of lockdowns and social distancing. In the first half of 2021, startups based in the Middle East attracted over $1.2 billion in investment—or 64% year-on-year growth. Digital transformation was already a priority in most countries, but this year external shocks pushed banks to strive for innovation more than ever. Faced with the coronavirus but also falling oil prices, MENA lenders rose to the challenge, rolling out digital banking solutions to their customers across the region.

“This year’s competition was tougher than ever. The pandemic accelerated the development and adoption of digital banking around the world, and this was reflected in the record number of entries in this year’s Best Digital Banks competition” said Chris Giarraputo, managing director of Global Finance magazine.

Applications came from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Global Finance teams announced the country and regional winners for Innovators, Corporate/Institutional Digital Banks and Consumer Digital Banks along with Global Best Digital Islamic Bank.

Citi won the award for Best Corporate/Institutional digital bank in the Middle East. The US lender showed a very strong performance across the board, also winning for Best Online Cash Management, Mobile Banking Adaptive Site, Social Media and Marketing Services. Under the leadership of Elissar Antonios, Citi’s first female head of MENA business, the bank participated in milestone merger, acquisition and equity deals in the GCC. Citi also outshined the competition at the country level, sweeping awards for Best Corporate Digital Bank in Bahrain—where it launched a brand-new tech hub—as well as in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar. In these countries and in the UAE, Citi also won several subcategory awards.

The only other international bank to stand out in the competition was Standard Chartered. The UK lender established a historic presence in the region and is now expanding its footprint in Saudi Arabia with innovative products tailored to customer needs. Standard Chartered received an award for Best MENA Consumer Banking App as well as a series of country awards in the UAE and Bahrain.

“In the past, it took very long to introduce innovation,” says Sonny Zulu, managing director for the Consumer, Private and Business Banking at Standard Chartered. “One of the key lessons we picked up from the pandemic is that lot can be done within a very short space of time”

The award for Best Consumer Digital Bank in the Middle East went to National Bank of Kuwait (NBK), Kuwait’s biggest bank, which partnered with several fintechs over the years. It also took regional lead as Best Innovative Digital Bank and for Best Online Product Offerings.

“We started our digital strategy before the pandemic and accelerated because of the customer demand,” says Mohammed AlOthman, head of Consumer Banking at NBK, pointing out that mobile banking adoption recorded double-digit growth over the past year. At home in Kuwait, NBK swept all the awards for consumer banking.

Local Leaders and Regional Outreach

Generally, Middle Eastern banks tend to focus on domestic markets. Each country typically has a clear market leader, like Bank Muscat, which won Best Digital Corporate and Consumer Bank in Oman without having to worry much about second-runners. But this year, there was much more competition at both the local and regional level, with lenders showing they can master not only their home markets but also scale across borders with new technologies. 

Bank Ahli United demonstrated its capacity to be a strong country leader while at the same time expanding its activities abroad. At home in Bahrain, the bank won Most Innovative Digital Consumer Bank as well as several subcategory awards in corporate banking. Manama’s biggest bank also stood out at the regional level, winning awards for Best MENA Online Treasury Services and Best Integrated Corporate Bank Site.

UAE banks competed at the regional level, with Bank Mashreq taking the awards for Best Innovative Corporate Digital Bank as well as four regional subcategory awards. At home, Mashreq took nine awards, including Best Corporate and Consumer Digital Bank, while First Abu Dhabi (FAB), the UAE’s biggest bank, took regional lead for Best Consumer Open Banking APIs and Best Mobile Banking Adaptative Site along with two country distinctions.

Moving to Qatari banks, Commercial Bank of Qatar (CBQ) and Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB) were shoulder to shoulder, winning numerous awards in Qatar and at the regional level. 

“The range of different awards we have won this year proves once again that we are successfully playing our role as pioneers in the digital banking scene, along with an ever-increasing number of customers relying on seamless services in their day to day lives” says Hussain Ali Al-Abdulla, EGM and chief marketing officer at CBQ.

Egypt, the region’s biggest country with over a population of over 100 million, is stepping its game up and taking a front row in digital banking. Cairo’s Commercial International Bank (CIB) won for Best MENA Corporate Online Investment Management Services, InfoSec and Fraud Management. At home, CIB took home 15 awards in both corporate and consumer digital banking.

Competition was also fierce among Jordanian banks. The Hashemite kingdom’s Arab flagship lender, Arab Bank, took a sweeping ten awards in Jordan, as well as winning Best Consumer Digital bank in Egypt and two regional awards. Right at its heels, a small competitor with big ambitions had a breakthrough year: Bank el Etihad was awarded four awards in Jordan, including Best Consumer Digital Bank, as well as Best Bill Payment and Presentment for the MENA region.


The pandemic and prolonged lockdown periods urged financial institutions to catch up with new technologies and roll out new services at record speed. This year’s Innovators had to adapt faster than ever to bring their clients fast remote solutions.

Bahrain’s Gulf International Bank was our pick for Outstanding Innovator in the Middle East as well as Best Innovation in Cash Management. Outstanding Crisis Management and Innovation was awarded to Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB).

“We were one of the fastest-recovering banks during the pandemic,” says Philip King, global head of Retail Banking at ADIB. “We benefited from our digital transformation strategy that we had fully underway.”

Global Finance looked at the region’s best innovation labs, giving nods to Bahrain’s ABC Labs by Bank ABC, Egypt’s CIB Innovation Lab and Kuwait’s NBK Group Digital Office.

“In Kuwait, 60% of the population is below 30 years old. That explains why digital adoption is so high when it comes to banking and other sectors,” says NBK’s Mohammed Al-Othman. “Everybody wants to invest in digital, but at NBK we are looking for partners beyond the banking sector.”

Islamic Finance

With the pandemic, ethical, social and green finance took greater importance than ever. And Islamic Finance, an industry that barely existed 30 years ago, took a front-row seat in global finance. Kuwait Finance House (KFH) was named the World’s Best Islamic bank. KFH also took awards for best Islamic Project Finance Provider and Best Islamic Takaful.

In subcategories, the panel of winners shows the diversity and great adaptability of banks. Qatar Islamic Bank was named the World’s Best Islamic Corporate Bank as well as Best Islamic Bank in the Middle East and at its home in Qatar. A small but very fast-growing player in the Shariah-compliant space, Boubyan won Best Digital Islamic Bank in the MENA region and Best Islamic Bank in Kuwait.

Proving once again that scaling is key, ADIB won Best Islamic Bank in the UAE, its home market, and also in Egypt. “Islamic finance has been the fastest-growing segment of the financial economy for several years now,” says Philip King from ABID. “People enjoy Shariah-compliant finance because of the transparency it brings and the focus on providing ethical products.”

Islamic banking goes way beyond the Middle East. The world’s Best Islamic Investment Bank award went to Standard Chartered’s Sadiq. Malaysia’s Maybank received global awards for Best Islamic Retail Bank, SME Bank and Trade Finance Provider as well as Best Islamic Bank in Asia and Malaysia. The award for Best Islamic bank in Europe and in Turkey went to Turkey’s Kuveyt Turk and sister company KT Bank.