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Banking in the Middle East will go paperless. And it will happen sooner than you think

The path to paperless is a huge task, experts say. It involves navigating complex technological and organizational challenges.

Banking in the Middle East will go paperless. And it will happen sooner than you think
[Source photo: Pankaj Kirdatt/Fast Company Middle East]

Khoulod Essa has been thinking about downsizing. She surveyed her office room and noticed boxes of documents – bills, credit card statements —  about ten years worth. Using a paper shredder, it took her a week to trash everything. “I don’t want to do this again. Digital receipt is better,” she says.

Electronic bank statements have virtues — saving trees and water, reducing carbon emissions, and keeping your desk uncluttered. And, just as checks gave way to debit cards, paper bank statements were replaced by electronic ones. 

Even paper money, the primary symbol of the stability and strength of an economy, is increasingly being used less. According to a poll by Standard Chartered, almost two-thirds of people in the UAE, or 64%, expect the country to become entirely cashless by 2030.


Remember, not long ago, the only checkout decision in a supermarket was paper or plastic bags. Now, the question is, “paper or digital receipt?”

For banks, digital bills, statements, and receipts alleviate handling and processing costs and require no physical delivery. Digital receipts save space for customers and allow them to quickly look things up. 

As technology gets better, banks are green-tweaking existing products.

Banking is changing into an expectation of convenience. We can bank through our smartphones and receive bills and receipts digitally.

Look at products like ATMs and online banking. In one fell swoop, they changed the consumer’s relationship with their banks and gave them unprecedented control over their money.

The little QR code is ubiquitous, connecting hundreds of millions in an instant payment system. 

Banks are increasingly using eye scans, fingerprints, voice, facial, and vein-pattern recognition tools to authenticate a person and give them access to their systems.

For example, eKYC, or Electronic Know Your Customer, eliminates the need for physical documents and in-person verification. In 2021, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank started allowing customers to open accounts remotely and digitally through facial recognition.

Banks are wasting less and running more efficiently.

“The shift to paperless banking in the Middle East is less a question of possibility and more one of strategic execution,” says Nidal Khalifeh, Chief Innovation Officer, Jordan Ahli Bank. “The region, with its evolving regulatory frameworks and growing digital infrastructure, is ripe for this transformation.”

The growing trend towards digitalization and innovation in the banking sector across the region is to enhance customer experiences and streamline operations that can contribute to furthering the region’s sustainability agenda. 

“We are seeing rapid adoption and enthusiasm for paperless digital banks across regional markets. While it may take some time for complete paperless banking to become a reality, the accelerated efforts towards digital transformation suggest that it is a definite possibility in the near future,” says Faisal Al Shimmari, Head of ESG & Corporate Strategy at Mashreq.

Mashreq is rolling out several paperless digital alternatives, including customer onboarding through biometric face validation, facial recognition technology, enabling account opening, and full digital onboarding through a simple facial scan. 

“We operate a digital inside-out approach, which also means building digital alternatives for our internal operations. We have pursued paperless initiatives, minimizing paper use across all our banking operations. Across our offices, we avoid the usage of printers wherever possible, switching to digital processes,” says Al Shimmari.

Its credit card services, account openings, and other customer-related processes are entirely paperless. Mashreq NEO allows customers to access various banking services, including savings and investments, loans, and forex solutions. 

Jordan Ahli Bank’s digital strategy goes beyond mere digitization of paper records. It created a unified digital repository to enhance customer profiling and service personalization. According to Khalifeh, this strategy reflects an understanding of the role of data analytics in driving customer-centric banking solutions. “Predictive analytics helps build better products and provides more personalized service to clients.” 


But with deeply ingrained practices and successful status quo products, it’s been daunting for traditional banks to look for sustainability-focused innovation.

The path to paperless is a gargantuan task. It involves navigating complex technological and organizational challenges. For traditional banks, this includes integrating legacy systems with new digital platforms and managing data security risks. 

Shifting to a paperless system is especially complex for banks due to the stringent regulatory requirements they must adhere to, which often necessitate original “wet” signatures and the retention of physical documents. 

“The challenge is to balance this with the need for robust digital security measures. Additionally, banks must mitigate risks such as hardware failures, which can lead to data loss,” says Al Shimmari. 

Banks are implementing advanced security features, including biometric validation via facial recognition, and have established a digital KYC solution with OCR technology to manage client data securely. A centralized regulatory portal also helps in managing and automating regulatory reporting. 

“These innovations address both the challenges of regulatory compliance and the risks associated with digitization,” adds Al Shimmari.

Paperless banking challenges are multifaceted. It involves transforming data into digital formats and integrating it into a unified, secure customer profile. 

“This requires sophisticated data management and advanced technology like AI to ensure accuracy and security. AI and GenAI are at the core of our digital, paperless banking approach,” says Shimmari. 

The future is entirely paperless. With increasing competition and similarly increasing costs –  spending billions of dollars processing and mailing checking statements and bills – banks incentivize customers into cheaper, technology-based alternatives.

The math is attractive from the consumer side as well. The average person may spend an hour monthly paying bills and writing checks.

And if e-statements are enough to track spending, check for fraud, identify errors, and make your payments on time, then you’re probably better off without all that paper.

Most importantly, digitization is part of a business continuity strategy to ensure banks’ greater resiliency. They are investing in digitization to lessen their reliance on paper documents to continue serving customers when they most need access to financial resources, for example, during a natural disaster or pandemic.

The branch-based banking model, which serves as historical storage for critical paper-based records, is also dying. Many branch closures were in response to pandemic-fueled changes in consumer behavior—specifically, the accelerated shift to digital channels and the reduced demand for services in physical channels.

When done properly, the benefits of paperless banking are improved security, smoother customer experience, and a happy regulator.

But for those banks that are still a long way from being paperless, they must ensure they’ve done the leg work. That starts with ensuring that day-to-day processes like signing and submitting forms are digitally enabled, allowing customers to provide their data online safely and easily. 

Leveraging open banking technology to create a paperless future means businesses can transform how they request, prepare, and verify clients’ financial information and ultimately move towards a paperless future.

But if you lean on hard copies to keep your life in order, stick with what works for you.

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Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More