The Bank of Palestine is successfully mirroring the region in which it operates as both Company and state seek to exist with a level of vibrancy, entrepreneurship and industry befitting of a recent equality and millennial-driven evolution.
PALESTINE’S FINANCIAL FLAG BEARERS
As the largest financial institution in Palestine, the responsibility taken on by the Bank to encourage and instil financial inclusion in the region has ensured that the notion is part of its DNA; working towards achieving higher goals on a yearly basis, and raising the bar of financial inclusion across all segments of society through its innovative banking solutions.
“The bank has taken its all-inclusive approach at financial inclusion to new heights. This is so because Palestine is still under a regime of lingering occupation that dictates a geographic reality between its different metropolis and countryside with some hindrance to accessibility and movement,” Chairman and General Manager, Hashim Shawa explains. “Therefore, it was incumbent upon the Bank to apply a dual approach of both physical and virtual connectivity to customers via an extensive branch network and electronic mobile banking; as well as by targeting segments of the population in city centres and remote villages alike.
“The Bank of Palestine has also continued to focus on financing and supporting micro, small, and medium sized enterprises (MSME), given the fact it is the engine of growth in an emerging economy like Palestine, and it contributes to reducing unemployment and increasing labour force productivity as a consequence.”
Similarly facilitating entrepreneurial growth, enhanced living standards and ongoing business development, the Bank of Palestine’s sophisticated products, services and consultancy status has contributed towards several sectors including commerce, services, industry, agriculture, tourism and construction; while also launching services such as the Business Toolkit Website to support previously unaccounted for sub-strands including MSMEs and female entrepreneurs.
“Since women are a core focus of the bank we have created banking products that meet the needs of women. The Felestineya programme offers banking products and services that meet the needs of female clients,” Shawa notes. “These products include a collateral-free loan for women in business, and a loan guaranteed by gold for women.
“The Bank of Palestine (BOP) was the first bank to allow women to open children’s savings accounts for their children without needing the permission of the father. The programme also offers a full non-financial advisory services programme.
“This work has earned us the Best Global Bank Award in Financial Inclusion by the Banker Magazine of the Financial Times in December, 2016; in addition to numerous regional awards as best bank in financial inclusion in the Middle East.”
Once again emphasising the ethos of financial inclusion, the bridging of advanced banking and corporate social responsibility has been the pillar of BOP’s success since its establishment in 1960; continuously evolving on a backdrop of humanity, friendliness, social promotion, customer care and inclusive banking.
Overcoming numerous political and societal objections and challenges along the way, its unwavering mission and vision has manifested in numerous landmark moments including its presence in the West Bank in the early 1990s, its modernisation into swift service a few years after, and the introduction of ATMs and card processing centres as well.
“Despite this growth, the Bank has remained faithful to the core values of the founders; and as such continues to grow with global standards while remaining local at heart,” Shawa emphasises. “The Bank has also put itself on the path to combine agile innovation in finance and banking, with its intrinsic values geared to provide an impact on human and economic development at home and around the globe.
“As of 2016, the Bank has assets above the threshold of US$4 billion compared to its asset base of US$400,000 when it started in 1960. This growth has provided the Bank with its leadership position in all aspects of the operations.”
Compounding these statistics is a market-leading 66 branch network, a capital figure of US$195 million, 1,600 employees, 780,000 customers, confirmed institutionalisation, listing on the Palestine Exchange, and assets in the third quarter of 2016 amounting to more than US$4.2 billion.
The reason behind such sustained triumph and growth has been the Bank’s ability to operate effectively in a volatile environment; being tasked with ensuring strong corporate governance and in complying with the stringent regulatory environment in which it operates in some cases.
“All of this physical expansion is not enough on its own to keep growing and achieving inclusive banking services of all regions in Palestine; especially if you factor in the younger population and the advent of technology, such as 3G technology becoming available in 2017,” Shawa continues. “The Bank’s foray into financial inclusion via technology was first done with the Bank’s subsidiary, PalPay® – Palestine Payments – which was established in 2011 and which is accepting payments and mobile top-ups on POS and online; especially for the unbanked in Palestine’s hinterland.”
“In an effort to also improve customer experience and enhance electronic banking, the Bank in 2016 signed an agreement with Royal Jordanian (RJ) airline to issue a co-branded Titanium MasterCard allowing cardholders to earn air miles with RJ every time they use the card. Additionally, Visa Electron cards were switched to Visa Debit cards; helping to further promote more plastic business and improving customer experience via more e-channels and instant digital banking services.”
FULL COVERAGE OF BANKING SERVICES
A subsequent diversification with PalPay has cemented further mobile banking development over the past couple of years, again addressing more modern financial portals, and the younger generations most likely to benefit from such services.
This has subsequently led to a more refined strategy honing in on sustained profit growth based around expansion, efficiency and technological advancement.
Shawa explains: “With a growth in assets, it allows more expansion and market share as a result of key acquisitions. Today, the Bank of Palestine is acting as a Group with additional resources and full coverage of banking services including Islamic Banking Solutions.“
“In terms of capital investments, 2016 was highlighted by two important strategic banking acquisition deals: the first deal was a merger deal whereby the Palestine Commercial Bank successfully merged with the Bank of Palestine in a share swap of 3:1 in favour of the BOP share; while the second deal was the acquisition of an additional 31 percent stake in the Arab Islamic Bank (AIB). This share acquisition allowed the Bank of Palestine to become a majority shareholder in an Islamic Banking operation in Palestine, holding 51.98 percent of AIB shares.”
Cognisant of its duty to serve more than 7.6 million Palestinians living in the diaspora, acquisitions and partnerships such as these help to instil a sense of trust that the Bank is building for the future in a region in need of financial stability. This same ethos is applied internally too via an employment strategy built around personnel investment, knowledge sharing, life skills, wellbeing and youth development.
“We are eager to enhance the internal culture ensuring that this is reflected on business and customer interfaces,” Shawa states.
This philosophy fits within a wider mission of providing impeccable banking services to Palestinians at home and abroad; implemented with best international standards and engagements in tow. To achieve this, a plethora of local and international partnerships have been formed, including with the likes of ICS Financial Services, the Arab Islamic Bank, VISA, PalPay, Al-Wasata Securities, and many more; all with a view of expanding the Bank’s network, knowledge base, investment portfolio, and accessibility to innovation.
From a social perspective, the focus has revolved around supporting the entrepreneur ecosystem, remaining proactive in promoting the country’s youth population, and creating tangible partnerships once again to add further clout to this mission.
“For example, the Bank – along with several like-minded partners – has established a $10 million Ibtikar Fund,” Shawa says. “The objective of this fund is to invest selectively in Palestinian early stage innovative ventures (focusing primarily in the ICT sectors) that, through active participation of the fund managers and a network of experienced mentors, lead to successful results and enables companies to grow and create returns for investors.
“The effects of this fund will go beyond the hoped-for returns to investors and will positively impact the Palestinian economy and create employment opportunities for young Palestinian university graduates.
“Social causes and community commitments are dear to our heart as a Bank and as individuals. To this end, we have fostered partnerships with many likeminded value-driven entities and individuals from Palestine and around the globe to help the community in education, in sports, in health, and in culture.”
A 12-hour music marathon concert benefiting breast cancer awareness in Palestine, raised more than US$1 million epitomises the kind of events that the Bank of Palestine is involved in; also offering an ultimate example of its key market differentiator to work from the heart and to showcase its commitment to best practice banking.
Shawa concludes: “We compare ourselves to international peers and bring it home to local practice. We do not imitate but look up to good models and good innovators. We become members in organisations that are global because of values, we take our customers seriously, we take our community seriously, and we work with our partners in a win-win formula.
“That is what sets us apart and in the future we hope to be the number one bank in Palestine; not just in size but in technological innovation, in customer experience and in our ability to help grow the Palestinian economy while deeply entrenched in value banking.
“We carry the national flag in our brand and name, and this is a heavy responsibility that we carry with pride every day.”