Bahrain and Saudi Arabia Forge Unique Paths in Embracing Financial Technology

In a recent panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, the differing approaches of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia towards the adoption of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) came to the forefront. Moderated by Joumanna Bercetche, with the participation of Yazeed Al-Nafjan, Mmaki Jantjies, Khalid Humaidan, Jihad Azour, the session titled The Central Bank Digital Currencies’ Opportunity in the Middle East shed light on the distinct strategies employed by the two nations.

Khaled Humaidan, Governor of the Central Bank of Bahrain, led the discussion by emphasizing Bahrain’s proactive stance in embracing digital transformation within the financial sector. Humaidan highlighted Bahrain’s readiness to leverage digital technologies, citing indicators such as high instant payment per capita, second only to Thailand. Bahrain envisions itself as a hub for digital financial services, welcoming global digital solutions to establish themselves within its borders.

In contrast, Yazeed Al-Nafjan, Deputy Governor of Financial Innovation at SAMA (Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority), presented Saudi Arabia’s cautious approach towards CBDC adoption. Al-Nafjan emphasized Saudi Arabia’s advanced payment infrastructure, stating that, currently, there isn’t a pressing need for retail CBDC given the robustness of the existing systems. Instead, Saudi Arabia focuses on leveraging innovative solutions to enhance the efficiency of its payment infrastructure, with CBDC exploration primarily targeting wholesale markets and cross-border transactions. Al-Nafjan mentioned the Aber project between the UAE central bank and SAMA as an experiment on cross-border transactions and highlighted SAMA’s participation in the mBridge project of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), while making it clear that they do not see a need yet to implement a retail CBDC.

Humaidan drew parallels between the evolution of cash-based systems and the trajectory of CBDCs, envisioning a future where CBDCs seamlessly integrate into the digital financial landscape. He emphasized collaboration as pivotal in ensuring smooth cross-border transactions and stressed the ease of transition to digital payments, citing increased adoption rates accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In summary, while both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia recognize the transformative potential of CBDCs and digital financial services, their approaches reflect their unique contexts and priorities. Bahrain’s proactive approach positions it as a leading hub for digital finance in the region, while Saudi Arabia maintains a cautious stance, leveraging its advanced payment infrastructure. As the global financial landscape continues to evolve, the experiences of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia serve as valuable lessons in navigating the intersection of tradition and innovation in the digital age.

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