In an exclusive interview with Muscat Daily, Sleiman talked about the growth of remittances business in the GCC and the expansion of Western Union’s digital services in the region.
Tell us about Western Union’s presence in the Middle East – the size of its network and how the company has evolved over the years in the region?
For a long time consumers have trusted Western Union to move money across the globe. This rich heritage has provided a strong foundation for building one of the largest money transfer networks in the world. Western Union is one of the biggest players in the Middle East region. There is no other player in money transfer business that matches our presence in this region.
We have more than 5,000 agent locations across the Middle East. However, we can never say that there are enough retail outlets, so there are still opportunities available for further growth and those opportunities will always be on our radar in the Middle East. We will continue to seek growths in retail as well as digital space as the opportunities arise. The expansion of digital money transfer services is our top priority in the region at present.
You have launched Western Union’s 24/7 digital services in few markets in the GCC. In which other Middle East countries you are planning to launch digital services?
We have already launched digital services in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. Globally, we have plans to be in 200 countries and are working in every continent to ensure the success of our digital strategy. For the GCC, we have plans to launch digital services in all six countries. We are planning to soon launch in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. I believe we will be able to cover the entire Middle East region with digital services in the next couple of years because our aim is to be in 200 countries by 2020.
Last year Western Union announced a collaboration with Arab Federation for e-Commerce to boost ecommerce growth and digital payments in
MENA region. Can you elaborate how Western Union is contributing in promoting ecommerce in the region?
We had announced the collaboration with the Arab Federation for e-Commerce to jointly boost the growth of ecommerce and digital payments in the region. The aim is to promote and strengthen ecommerce markets in the Arab world.
Western Union is already involved in many ecommerce activities and ecommerce is a much bigger area than money transfer industry. We have been providing cash-to-cash, business-to-customers and business-to-business services through various channels, all these activities come under ecommerce. So by leveraging our expertise and experience, this collaboration would support the Arab Federation for e-Commerce for the growth of ecommerce in the Arab world. However, we have not yet made progress in terms of the execution, but plans are in place for a continuous collaboration with the Arab Federation for e-Commerce.
On the digital front, what are your future plans in terms of launching more services and targeting new areas for business growth?
We have completed a year since we first launched digital services in Kuwait and the response has exceeded our expectations. When digital services are launched in developed markets it always work quickly, but about the Middle East region we had doubts whether it will work quickly. But we were impressed when people in the Gulf region quickly adopted these new digital services. We have realised that the customers in the region prefer digital services to send money 24/7 to avoid hassles of visiting retail outlets.
Western Union would continue to innovate on various fronts and while doing this, customer satisfaction remains our top priority. We have been innovating our technologies for both digital services and retail outlets. With fast evolving technology, the speed of sending remittances is improving continuously.
Blockchain technology is the next big area of innovation. This will further enhance our services as Western Union is investing in blockchain technology. We are learning to adopt this new technology environment and it may help us in various areas. We are confident that we will continue to innovate and provide more choices to customers and grow in future.
What is your outlook on growth of remittances business in Oman?
As per the World Bank statistics on remittances, the Middle East region accounts for around 25 per cent of global remittances. This makes the Middle East a huge market, which is very important for all players in remittances business. Within the Middle East, the Gulf region is the main hub for remittances worth over US$100bn annually.
Oman is an integral part of the GCC region and the sultanate’s economic growth and development plans are very good and clear. Oman is a major market for Western Union. Total remittances sent from the sultanate were worth over US$9bn in 2017.
GCC economies faced severe challenges after the oil price crashed in 2014. How was your business affected in the past few years and what is your outlook for next two-three years?
The remittances business is also part of this economic cycle in the GCC countries and we definitely see the impact during the economic slowdown. We witnessed pressure in the past few years as many infrastructure projects were put on hold and foreign direct investment declined in the region.
The year 2016 and 2017 were challenging for all in the GCC.
However, we are optimistic about the growth prospects of the GCC countries, which hold nearly 25 per cent of the world’s oil reserves. The region’s economic fundamentals are strong and we believe the growth will continue to bounce back. GCC governments are ambitious about their long-term plans and economic diversification. In my view, the GCC region’s long-term economic outlook remains positive and Western Union is well-positioned to grow in the future.