Saudi Arabian Market Blossoms For Outside Investors: Q&A With SABB CEO Tony Cripps

Saudi Arabian Market Blossoms For Outside Investors: Q&A With SABB CEO Tony Cripps

Tony Cripps, CEO of SABB, discusses the benefits of the financial sector’s ongoing transformation.

Global Finance: You became CEO of SABB about a year ago, what was your first challenge?

Tony Cripps: It was a really great time to step in, as SABB had just completed integration with Al-Awwal bank, which was a first of its kind in the kingdom. Post-integration, the five-year plan is to grow our retail business, and an important part of that strategy is the affluent segment growth. We have been the dominant international bank for a long time in the corporate space, but we want to add a much bigger focus on small and midsize enterprises [SMEs].

GF: Saudi Arabia is transforming very quickly. It’s opening up and looking to attract foreign investors. How does SABB promote the kingdom as a business destination?

Cripps: SABB already banks more than 80% of the multinational corporations that operate in the kingdom. We are the “go-to” bank for international customers to set up their financial services in Saudi Arabia. Our affiliation and shared ownership structure with HSBC means that if clients in Asia, for example, want to do business in the kingdom, this is something that HSBC and SABB can work on together. In that way, we advocate for opportunities in Saudi Arabia and facilitate the complete transition of a company’s businesses and employees.

GF: Saudi banks have focused mainly on the Saudi market. What’s your take on expanding in the region?

Cripps: Well, we already have. The HSBC group has an extensive presence in the region, including Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Turkey, Bahrain and Oman. It also exists in Saudi Arabia: SABB owns 49% of HSBC Saudi Arabia and it provides investment banking services. So, we have the regional network, share technology systems and share talent.

GF: What would you say are some of the challenges SABB faces in Saudi Arabia?

Cripps: Some of it is around technology. With rapid tech adoption and automation comes a requirement for skill shifts within your workforce. That’s a challenge for the industry.

GF: How does SABB promote sustainable investment in Saudi Arabia while the kingdom remains the world’s third-largest oil producer?

Cripps: What is happening here is of tremendous interest to the international investor community because it is a big problem people want to solve globally. Saudi Arabia sits very much at the top of that pyramid. Imagine if you could make Saudi Arabia net-zero by 2060, that would be an incredible achievement to be involved in, and it has already started.

GF: What other sectors of the economy are promising growth? 

Cripps: Hospitality and entertainment are exploding. To think that five years ago, an open-air concert in the desert with 250,000 people was something that most people thought wasn’t possible. Yet, it is now happening. International tourism and gigaprojects like the Red Sea or Al-Ula will open the kingdom to the rest of the world in an unprecedented way. So, that’s an exciting part of the economy and one in which the financial sector will play a key role.

GF: The Saudi financial sector is transforming as the kingdom has allowed nonbank payment service providers to join the market. How does SABB operate with these new actors? Are they creating competition, opportunities to collaborate or potential targets of acquisition?

Cripps: In some areas, it creates competition, generally to the consumer’s benefit. It also creates opportunities for us to connect with new players and provide embedded financial solutions. SABB has an open architecture, allowing us to plug into fintechs very easily. Currently, our bank processes about 50% of the kingdom’s e-commerce transactions. Going forward, it is possible that SABB, like HSBC, would look at making investments into fintechs. That’s definitely something that we’re open to. 

GF: What would you say the future of Saudi banking looks like?

Cripps: It’s all around technology. I think blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, will accelerate. That’s going to provide challenges for banks to adjust, but all of this is quite exciting because the customer experience becomes better and more efficient at the end of the day.