SAMA partners with international institutions to facilitate cross-border payments

The MVP platform is a multi-central bank digital currency system, known as Wholesale CBDC system, that aims to facilitate cross-border payments between commercial banks in different jurisdictions.
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Updated 05 June 2024
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SAMA partners with international institutions to facilitate cross-border payments

RIYADH: The Saudi Central Bank, also known as SAMA, has partnered with international financial institutions and central banks to build an innovative cross-border payments infrastructure.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, SAMA said it has joined the Bank for International Settlements’ mBridge project as a participant in the Minimum Viable Product platform.

The MVP platform is a multi-central bank digital currency system, known as Wholesale CBDC system, that aims to facilitate cross-border payments between commercial banks in different jurisdictions.

It is considered the first multi-wCBDC platform to reach the MVP phase of development.

In October 2020, the G20 during Saudi Arabia's presidency agreed on a roadmap to enhance global cross-border payments, to facilitate cheaper, faster, more inclusive and more transparent payment transactions. 

The roadmap called for an evaluation of the proposed local designs for the digital currency of several central banks and experimentation with its use in settling cross-border payments.

SAMA has been investigating the potential of wholesale CBDC, through the analysis of policy-related issues, to evaluate the feasibility of the system to boost the effectiveness of cross-border payment and settlement between commercial banks, the statement said.

According to a BIS statement, project mBridge is the result of extensive collaboration starting in 2021 between the BIS Innovation Hub, the Bank of Thailand, the Central Bank of the UAE, the Digital Currency Institute of the People's Bank of China and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. 

The project aims to tackle some of the key inefficiencies in cross-border payments, including high costs, low speed and operational complexities. It also addresses financial inclusion concerns, particularly in jurisdictions where correspondent banking, which connects countries to the global financial system, has been in retreat, causing additional costs and delays. 

Multi-CBDC arrangements that connect different jurisdictions in a single common technical infrastructure offer significant potential to improve the current system and allow cross-border payments to be immediate, cheap and universally accessible with final settlement, the statement said. 


IMF welcomes Saudi recalibrations on Vision 2030 projects

Updated 19 July 2024
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IMF welcomes Saudi recalibrations on Vision 2030 projects

  • IMF’s revision of KSA economic output is largely due to oil production cuts

RIYADH: The International Monetary Fund has welcomed recent recalibrations and adjustments by Saudi Arabia on some of its megaprojects under Vision 2030.

“We are almost at a midpoint in the Vision 2030,” said Jihad Azour, the IMF director of the Middle East and Central Asia department, and “those recalibrations are part of the classical revision of any medium-term strategy.”

The Kingdom is conducting a review of its major projects, reprioritizing spending, diverting funds and adjusting budgets, according to a recent report by Bloomberg News, while in May, Reuters also reported that the Public Investment Fund “is weighing a reorganization that includes reprioritising projects and reviewing some expenses.”

Azour said these are welcomed by the IMF as Saudi authorities are now looking at and recalibrating their investment programs.

“What is driving the non-oil growth in the Saudi economy is a mix of increasing demand, the impact of structural reforms that have, for example, improved economic activity but also improved the employment indicators, we saw a doubling of the women participation in the economy, (and) a drop in the unemployment,” Azour said during an interview with Joumanna Bercetche on Bloomberg’s Horizons Middle East and Africa program.

Structural reforms, investment, and increasing demand by opening a number of new sectors are driving the growth in the economy, he added.

“The management of the economy, the ability to keep prices under control and the translation of economic growth into job creation are steps in the right direction in accelerating the diversification of the economy and growing the size of the non-oil sector,” he also said.

Earlier this week, the IMF downgraded the Kingdom’s economic growth by nearly 1 percentage point to 1.7 percent this year, down 0.9 percentage points from the agency’s previous forecast in April of 2.6 percent.

In its World Economic Outlook update, the IMF also revised the country’s output increase to 4.7 percent next year, down 1.3 percentage points from its April forecast of 6 percent.

“When we look at the non-oil economic activity, it is still growing at healthy rates and on average, we expect for the next medium term to exceed 4 percent,” Azour said, adding: “Inflation is still low and it has been revised slightly downward (to) 1.7 percent this year, which is a very good control over prices and our expectation is that inflation will remain around 1.9 to 2 percent in the medium term.”

He said the main reason for the IMF’s revision is due to the OPEC+ agreement to limit oil output being extended to September 2025 and the gradual reduction in the Kingdom’s voluntary production cuts.

In June, the group agreed to extend most of its deep oil output cuts for 2024 and to start phasing them out next year. Member countries have begun cutting output by 5.86 million barrels per day, or around 5.7 percent of global demand.

“We had to revise technically the growth for the oil sector, and for the non-oil sector, I would say, the level of growth is still higher than the global growth. 3.7 percent is our expectation for the non-oil sector this year, and in the medium term, we expect the non-oil sector to grow at above 4 percent.”

The IMF forecast that global growth will reach 3.2 percent this year and 3.3 percent next year, while the Middle East and North Africa region is projected to grow 2.2 percent this year, down half a percentage point from three months ago.

Azour acknowledged that the instability in the region and geopolitical tensions have a great impact on economic activity, including the war in Gaza and attacks on shipping that are disrupting trade routes in the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

“We are still seeing that as a threat, especially because of the insecurity (that) has affected the trade that usually goes through the Red Sea and Suez Canal and affected slightly economic activity in a certain number of countries who benefit from this flow of trade,” he said.

The IMF is seeing that the volume of commerce has declined drastically through the Red Sea, especially for container shipping, where two-thirds of the trade has dropped compared to the same period last year, Azour said, adding that the agency has also seen a slight increase in the cost of transport.

“We saw a rapid response and a high level of flexibility in adjusting to that and therefore it did not lead to a disruption in oil and gas, and this is something that had to stabilize the market and reduce the level of volatility that we saw in the first few weeks of the war in Gaza,” he said.

The oil and gas and the financial markets recovered after a short period of volatility, Azour also said, but “in both cases now it’s much more dependent on global developments on the supply and demand for oil, and for the markets, it’s now much more linked to the developments in the international financial markets.”

The comments came as the Minister of Economy and Planning, Faisal Alibrahim, met with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva in Riyadh to discuss the “prospects for global and regional growth in light of the latest economic developments,” the ministry said in a statement. 

They also reviewed the most prominent developments and trends in the local economy and discussed enhancing cooperation between the Kingdom and the fund. 

He also held separate talks with Azour and IMF Chief Economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas.


Saudi home ownership rate passes 63%, closing in on Vision 2030 target

Updated 19 July 2024
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Saudi home ownership rate passes 63%, closing in on Vision 2030 target

RIYADH: The percentage of Saudi households owning a home reached 63.74 percent at the end of 2023, an increase of 16.7 percent compared to 2016, according to a new report.

The Housing Program — one of the initiatives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 — revealed the share of Saudi families owning a housing unit had exceeded the target set for the year of 63 percent.

The findings – set out in the organization’s annual report – confirm that the Kingdom is well on its way to meeting its goal of 70 percent home ownership by 2030.

More than 96,000 families eligible for housing support benefited from the program last year, and it assisted over 20,000 families through developmental housing tracks.

The program said more than 26,000 contracts were signed by the Ministry of Municipal, Rural Affairs and Housing for land development, including 11,000 contracts during the fourth quarter of 2023 to develop affordable housing and improve Saudi home ownership availability.

“The program approved the completion of over 800 plans, issued more than 3,000 building permits, and provided 10,000 housing units for developmental housing beneficiaries,” the Saudi Press Agency said, adding that the number of contracts signed for the off-plan sales product reached 10,904 contracts.

The report reviewed the housing strategy and said the increase in the pace of ownership was an “indicator of success and continuous improvement in the sector.” 

The strategy also took into account transformations in the global economy, their impact on the real estate market, the financial conditions in the Kingdom, and their impact on the purchasing and investment capabilities of citizens and investors in the housing sector.

The program has also launched many initiatives and development projects to support the Saudi housing market, provided many job and investment opportunities, and attracted developers and partners in the private sector to help find solutions for home seekers in various regions of the Kingdom.

The housing program, which was launched in 2018, seeks to enable and facilitate Saudi home ownership by providing a range of housing and financing options and reducing waiting lists for various segments of society throughout the Kingdom.

Prior to the launch of Vision 2030, Saudi families could wait up to 15 years to receive housing support. 

“By easing access to financial support, streamlining processes and digitizing documentation, home ownership increased from 47 percent to more than 60 percent in the end of 2022,” the program had previously said.


Saudi Arabia on the path to global entertainment leadership with Vision 2030

Updated 19 July 2024
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Saudi Arabia on the path to global entertainment leadership with Vision 2030

RIYADH: When Saudi Arabia launched the General Entertainment Authority in 2016, skeptics were doubtful about its outcome as the Kingdom was just taking its nascent steps in the sector. 

Today, Saudi Arabia stands at the forefront of leisure and entertainment in the Middle East and North Africa, driven by ambitious investments and strategic initiatives under Vision 2030. 

Under this program, the Kingdom aims to inject $64 billion into the industry by the end of the decade, accompanied by the creation of over 100,000 jobs. 

From sprawling entertainment complexes in major cities to a thriving cinema sector, Saudi Arabia exemplifies how determined regulatory policies can transform a nascent industry into a pillar of economic growth and cultural development. 

“Driven by the launch of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s entertainment landscape has flourished rapidly,” said Devanshu Mathur, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. 

“This transformation was initiated by the reopening of cinemas across the Kingdom in 2018, followed by the establishment of various entertainment offerings in 2019, such as Saudi Seasons and Boulevard Riyadh City, and the introduction of annual live music events like MDL Beast.”

SEVEN’s expansion

Play-Doh-themed entertainment centers will be rolled out across the Kingdom. File/supplied

A pivotal milestone in Saudi Arabia’s entertainment journey was the establishment of Saudi Entertainment Ventures, also known as SEVEN, in 2017. 

Backed by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, the company is set to invest $13.3 billion with international partners to develop 21 comprehensive entertainment destinations featuring over 150 attractions across 14 Saudi cities by the decade’s end. 

In 2023, SEVEN acquired AMC Entertainment Holdings’ 85 cinema screens in Saudi Arabia, solidifying its commitment to enhancing the Kingdom’s cinematic landscape. 

“The acquisition of AMC’s stake in Saudi Arabia reflects SEVEN’s long-term strategy of bringing unparalleled experiences to the people and visitors of the Kingdom and contributing to the Saudi Vision 2030 goals,” said Abdullah Al-Dawood, chairman of SEVEN, at that time.  

In the same year, the company also signed a landmark agreement with Hasbro Inc. to introduce Play-Doh-themed entertainment centers nationwide, aimed at nurturing creativity among children while providing engaging family experiences. 

Al-Dawood added: “Children will be able to learn while having fun at our Play-Doh centers located at SEVEN entertainment destinations.”  

The centers will feature multi-level playscapes, creativity stations and sensory discovery activity spaces, as well as a café spot for parents to pass their time.  

“SEVEN is currently in its advanced stages of development. This initiative focuses on developing innovative entertainment experiences across multiple regions in KSA, targeting residents and domestic tourists,” said Boston Consulting Group’s Mathur. 

In May, Qiddiya Investment Co., owned by PIF, merged with SEVEN as part of Saudi Arabia’s broader strategy to enhance its entertainment ecosystem and accelerate the construction of the multi-billion-dollar project. 

Commenting on the incorporation, Al-Dawood at that time stated that the move supported their efforts to promote a culture of playfulness and joy among all members of society, including citizens, residents, and visitors, thereby contributing positively to societal well-being. 

He added: “The step also aims to nurture knowledge, skills, and creativity among individuals, ultimately targeting to create a new concept of fun and improving quality of life through the development of an integrated and unprecedented entertainment system.”  

Devanshu Mathur, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. Supplied

Cinematic evolution

Since the opening of the first cinema hall in the Kingdom in 2018, the sector has continually evolved, with the industry generating around $240 million in 2023. 

Mathur explained: “The number of cinema screens in Saudi Arabia has surged from zero to over 600, reflecting substantial growth in infrastructure. The cinema market has seen the entry of multiple global and regional players into the Kingdom.” 

He added: “Saudi Arabia’s box office market is the 15th largest in the world.” 

Moreover, in 2020, Saudi Arabia was the only cinema market worldwide to record box office gains, successfully doubling the number of theater screens despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The expansion of cinemas extends beyond major cities to include 22 cities across the Kingdom. These developments underline Saudi Arabia’s rapid progress in establishing a robust and thriving cinema industry,” the Mathur added.  

In February, the Kingdom’s MEFIC Capital launched the Saudi Film Fund with a capital injection of $100 million, 40 percent of which comes from the nation’s Cultural Development Fund. 

This initiative aims to elevate local productions to international standards and marked the Cultural Fund’s inaugural investment venture. 

Global opportunities

Foreign companies seeking to enter Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector have vast opportunities due to the industry’s nascent stage, according to a Boston Consulting Group analysis. 

The consulting firm highlighted opportunities across the entire value chain of the Kingdom’s entertainment market, from design and development to operations. 

“Some companies have imported their existing entertainment brands and concepts to the Saudi market, leveraging their reputation and operational expertise,” said Mathur.  

Notable examples include Majid Al Futtaim’s VOX cinemas and Magic Planet entertainment centers, which have successfully introduced their renowned brands to the Kingdom. 

He added: “Some companies and brands look to partner with local development companies and license their intellectual properties to capitalize on their popular IPs while expanding their market reach. An example here would be what we’re observing with Dragon Ball in Qiddiya City or Mattel with SEVEN.”  

Boston Consulting Group noted that Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector is set for significant growth with major projects like Qiddiya City, an expansive entertainment, sports, and cultural destination near Riyadh. 

The destination will feature assets such as Dragon Ball and Six Flags theme parks, the largest water park in the Middle East, and numerous other world-class attractions. 

“These landmarks are expected to attract millions of visitors annually, including residents and domestic and international tourists, establishing Saudi Arabia as a global entertainment hub,” concluded Boston Consulting Group.

Saudi Arabia’s rapid transformation into a global entertainment hub underscores its commitment to economic diversification and cultural growth.

With ambitious projects like Qiddiya City and SEVEN’s extensive developments, the Kingdom is set to attract millions of visitors, solidifying its position as a leader in the entertainment industry.

This strategic vision not only enhances the quality of life for its citizens but also positions Saudi Arabia as a premier destination for global entertainment and leisure. 


Startup Wrap – cross-border funding and acquisitions flourish as MENA activity steps up 

Updated 19 July 2024
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Startup Wrap – cross-border funding and acquisitions flourish as MENA activity steps up 

CAIRO: Regional startup activity has seen many acquisitions and funding rounds in recent weeks, with climate technology, artificial intelligence, and Web3 garnering the most attention. 

Saudi Arabia’s venture capital firm Wa’ed Ventures, a $500-million Aramco subsidiary, led California-based AI platform aiXplain’s $6.5 million pre-series A funding round. 

Backed by US-based firms including Transform VC and Calibrate VC, aiXplain has raised a total of $16.5 million since its inception, aiming for a global rollout of AI solutions. 

Founded in 2020 by Hassan Sawaf, aiXplain has designed an integrated platform to simplify the creation, deployment, and management of AI solutions. 

The company aims to democratize access to AI innovation by enabling the building of advanced solutions through natural language prompts for users with no coding background. 

This approach allows businesses to maximize operational efficiencies by accelerating the time and effort needed for integrating AI into large-scale operations. 

“Hassan and his team deeply understand the global disparity in AI access and the potentially damaging effects of leaving this gap unaddressed,” said Fahad Alidi, managing director and CEO at Wa’ed Ventures. 

He added that aiXplain “has already helped close the AI innovation gap in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, and we see significant potential for the company to localize its solutions in the Kingdom.” 

To accelerate its entry into the Kingdom, aiXplain’s existing subsidiary in Saudi Arabia will function as the company’s MENA region headquarters. 

Beyond the Kingdom, aiXplain works with businesses worldwide to build AI solutions efficiently, as well as fine-tune and benchmark AI models. 

Oman-based climate tech 44.01 secures $37m in series A funding 

Oman-based climate technology startup 44.01 has closed a $37 million series A funding round, led by Equinor Ventures with participation from Shorooq Partners, Air Liquide Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures, and other investors. 

Founded in 2020 by Talal Hassan, Ehab Tasfai, and Karan Khimji, 44.01 specializes in eliminating carbon dioxide by converting it into rock. 

The funding will enable the firm to continue refining its technology, develop commercial-scale projects, and expand its deployment internationally. The company’s tech has been piloted in Oman and the UAE. 

Talal Hasan, founder and CEO of 44.01, said: “We believe mineralization can play a significant role in protecting and repairing our climate. We are grateful to our investors for committing to that mission and for demonstrating their confidence in our technology.” 

He added: “Our investors bring a wealth of international expertise and experience that will help us to accelerate our development and ultimately mineralize CO2 at scale world-wide.”

Sentient Labs raises $85m in seed investment 

UAE-based Web3-focused startup Sentient Labs has raised an $85m through a seed investment round co-led by Pantera Capital and Framework Ventures, with additional funding from Arrington Capital, Canonical, Dao5, and others. 

Founded in January 2024 by Sandeep Nailwal, Pramod Viswanath, and Himanshu Tyagi, Sentient Labs is dedicated to democratizing AI development to ensure its benefits are shared by humanity as a whole. 

Sentient Labs will use the capital to accelerate the development of its open-source AI platform. 

Muller & Phipps acquires Power League Gaming 

Supplied

Regional technology distribution house Muller & Phipps Middle East Group has acquired UAE-based gaming and esports agency Power League Gaming for an undisclosed value. 

The acquisition will see Muller & Phipps invest in scaling Dubai operations and expanding into Saudi Arabia in the fourth quarter of 2024. 

Founded in 2013 by John Lacey, Power League Gaming offers comprehensive solutions for brands entering the gaming sector and publishers engaging audiences through esports events, content creation, and omni-channel ecosystem development. 

Muller & Phipps will acquire all company assets, retaining the management team to lead the business. 

“With Power League Gaming we see market experts who have grown rapidly and who have the talent and drive to take the business and the category itself to the next level across our region. We are excited to launch into Saudi Arabia later this year and to offer local clients the latest and most commercially sound esports and gaming strategies in the field,” group CEO of Muller & Phipps Middle East Group Holdings, Trevor Price, said. 

Tokinvest secures $500k in pre-seed funding 

UAE-based tokenization platform Tokinvest has raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding from a group of investors, including Michael Ourabah, CEO of global infrastructure provider BSO. 

Founded in 2024 by Scott Thiel and Matthew Blom, Tokinvest creates virtual tokens representing rights to assets, connecting real-world asset issuers with global investors through its marketplace. 

The newly acquired funds will be used to enhance Tokinvest’s technological infrastructure, expand its team, and accelerate market penetration. 

“We are immensely grateful for the trust and support from our early investors. This funding fuels our technological and operational development and solidifies our strategy to lead in the real-world asset tokenization space. We are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead and are keenly focused on launching our marketplace later this year,” Thiel, the company’s CEO, said. 

Swyt concludes undisclosed seed round 

UAE-based IT solutions provider Swyt has concluded an undisclosed seed funding round. 

Founded in 2022 by Edouard Bouvet, Swyt offers an all-in-one platform designed to simplify and secure IT operations for businesses. 

The seed funding will support Swyt’s mission to accelerate research and development on their platform and expand its presence throughout the Gulf region. 

Dopay closes $13.5m series A extension round 

Dopay team. Supplied

Egypt-headquartered fintech Dopay has closed a $13.5 million series A extension round, adding to a previous $18 million series A round raised in 2021. The new funding initiative was led by Argentem Creek Partners with participation from existing investors. 

Founded in 2014 by Frans van Eersel and Ahmed Nassef, Dopay offers a virtual banking platform that digitizes cash payments from employers to workers and other beneficiaries. 

The fresh funding will enable Dopay to expand in Egypt, launch new financial services, and extend its multi-bank, multi-country platform to other markets. 

“This funding comes at a pivotal moment, with our growth exhibiting a true hockey stick trajectory. The new funds will help us elevate our platform and, in collaboration with our partner banks, leverage deposited funds to create a self-financing lending model,” Eersel said. 

“This model will allow deposited amounts to fuel a lending portfolio, fostering a sustainable and mutually beneficial financial ecosystem. Our customers can look forward to new financing products that will be seamlessly embedded into our platform, enhancing their overall experience,” he added. 

Majarra acquires NLP technology provider Lableb 

UAE-based Arabic digital content provider Majarra has acquired natural language processing technology provider Lableb for an undisclosed amount. 

Founded in 2004 by Abdulsalam Haykal, Majarra provides Arabic content through its app, offering a vast library of over 50,000 articles, videos, and audio content. 

Lableb, founded in 2017 by Kinda Al-Tarbouch, offers Arabic AI services and NLP. The acquisition aims to solidify Majarra’s position at the forefront of Arabic digital innovation and marks its entry into the rapidly expanding AI sector. 

“Joining Majarra marks an exciting new chapter for Lableb. Our shared vision of advancing Arabic AI and NLP will drive innovation and deliver significant value to online businesses and their customers. Lableb’s tools are robust, ready to deploy, and capable of handling millions of queries weekly,” Al-Tarbouch said. 


Oil Updates – crude steady as supply outlook offsets strong dollar and China worries

Updated 19 July 2024
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Oil Updates – crude steady as supply outlook offsets strong dollar and China worries

LONDON: Oil prices were little changed on Friday as a strong dollar and concern over the economy of top oil importer China were countered by a tighter supply outlook, according to Reuters.

Brent crude prices fell by 9 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $85.02 a barrel by 2:35 p.m. Saudi time. US West Texas Intermediate crude futures slipped 24 cents, or 0.3 percent, to $82.58.

The US dollar index climbed for a second consecutive session after stronger than expected data on the US labor market and manufacturing earlier in the week. A stronger US currency dampens demand for dollar-denominated oil from buyers holding other currencies.

A lack of concrete stimulus measures from top oil importer China has also weighed on commodities, ANZ analysts wrote.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials acknowledged on Friday that the sweeping list of economic goals re-emphasized at the end of a key Communist Party meeting this week contained “many complex contradictions,” pointing to a bumpy road ahead for policy implementation in the world’s second-largest economy.

China’s economy grew by a slower than expected 4.7 percent in the second quarter, official data showed, sparking concerns over its demand for oil.

A global tech outage on Friday disrupted operations in multiple industries, with airlines halting flights, some broadcasters going off-air and everything from banking to health care hit by system problems.

LSEG Group’s data and services were back up and running on Friday after an outage caused some disruption across financial markets earlier in the day. Reuters provides news for LSEG’s Workspace platform.

Meanwhile, two large oil tankers were on fire on Friday after colliding in waters near Singapore, the world’s biggest refueling port, with two crew members airlifted to hospital and others rescued from life rafts, authorities and one of the companies said.

Oil prices found some support in the previous two sessions after the US government reported a bigger than expected weekly decline in oil stockpiles.

The OPEC+ producer group, meanwhile, is unlikely to recommend changing its output policy, including a plan to start unwinding one layer of oil supply cuts from October, three sources told Reuters on Thursday.

“We think Q3 balances are set to tighten, due to continued OPEC restraint and seasonal demand increases, before weakening in Q4 on additional supplies from OPEC+ and the US,” BNP Paribas analyst Aldo Spanjer wrote in a research note.