Mastercard’s Journey to a Sustainable and Inclusive Digital Future

Khalid Elgibali, division president, Middle East and North Africa, explores how the technology company is powering economies and empowering people
Mastercard’s Journey to a Sustainable and Inclusive Digital Future
Khalid Elgibali, president of Mastercard's MENA division

We are living in a world driven by digital technology. However, it’s not just innovation that’s paving the way for a better future – inclusivity and sustainability play crucial roles in propelling progress in different sectors. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Mastercard has emerged as a pioneer, driving significant change in the payments space and beyond.

Advancing Digital Inclusion

For more than 50 years, Mastercard has been at the forefront of innovation and powering the digital economy. The company continues to introduce cutting-edge products and services, leveraging its advanced technology to cater to evolving needs. These offerings are brought to the market through collaborations with fintech companies, governments, financial institutions, tech leaders, and telecom operators.

However, its impact extends beyond payment solutions. “At Mastercard, we work every day to build a more inclusive and sustainable digital economy, where everyone has equal access and opportunities,” said Khalid Elgibali, division president, Middle East and North Africa at Mastercard, in an exclusive interview.

“Inclusion is at the heart of what we do. Financial inclusion is not about simply having a bank account. Financial inclusion means effectively addressing the inequities in our financial systems to ensure businesses, governments, and people have access to the digital economy,” he added.

In the MENA region, Mastercard has initiated several projects as part of its commitment to advancing financial and digital inclusion.

Most recently, the company partnered with e& money to transform and modernize customer payment methods through an exclusive prepaid card, an initiative that offers flexibility and convenience by enabling the use of virtual and physical cards. The aim is to support financial inclusion and provide access to digital payments for all customer segments, including those who are banked, underbanked, and unbanked, in 16 markets.

A recent Mastercard study, Bridging the Disability Gap: An Opportunity to Make a Positive Impact, revealed that digital inclusion is the pathway to financial inclusion for people with disabilities. The report highlights a clear opportunity for the industry to work collaboratively to make a positive impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.

As part of its efforts to drive greater financial inclusion among the 2.2 billion people across the globe who have visual impairments, the company developed the Mastercard Touch Card. The UAE took the lead with this innovation as Mastercard collaborated with Ajman Bank to launch the world’s first Touch Card in 2022. The Touch Card enables those who are blind or who have reduced vision to quickly distinguish between their cards by creating an accessible system of payment cards with unique tactile notches — rounded for debit, squared for credit, and triangular for prepaid — so anyone can identify their cards with just a touch. The solution will soon be rolled out in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Collaborating for Progress

As a trusted partner and advisor, Mastercard has been working closely with governments to deliver on the shared vision of building a sustainable and resilient digital economy that is inclusive for all. The technology company helps to forge highly collaborative and productive partnerships across the private and public sectors, focused on jointly solving important government challenges to the highest security standards to ensure citizen trust and confidence.

In Egypt, Mastercard partnered with the Administrative Capital for Urban Development to build an efficient digital infrastructure. This initiative aims to enable the New Administrative Capital to become Egypt’s first cashless city. The company also collaborated with the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) and the Egyptian Banks Company (EBC) to support the implementation of secure card tokenization regulations by providing necessary infrastructure to all issuing banks across the country.

Furthermore, Mastercard is actively involved in helping governments in the region shape smart and connected cities of the future, along with deploying advanced urban mobility solutions. In Jordan, it has partnered with the Greater Amman Municipality and Network International to introduce the first transit payment ecosystem in the capital, facilitating seamless digital payments.

In addition to these efforts, Mastercard is closely collaborating with governments to assist them in leveraging technology to achieve their ambitious visions and develop high-growth sectors. In the UAE, it has initiated a unique Digital City partnership with Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism. This partnership leverages Mastercard’s advanced payments network and data-driven digital commerce technology to address key priorities outlined in the Dubai Economic Agenda (D33).

To support Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning billion-dollar gaming industry, Mastercard has teamed up with the Saudi Esports Federation (SEF) and Saudi National Bank (SNB) to create innovative financial solutions tailored to gamers.

Combating Cyber Threats with Technology

In today’s fast-evolving digital economy, it’s crucial to have state-of-the-art cybersecurity measures in place. According to data by Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime is projected to cost a staggering $10.5 trillion annually by 2025. Additionally, Mastercard reported that ransomware damages in 2021 amounted to a hefty $20 billion, 57 times more than in 2015.

Mastercard is working with its partners in the public and private sector to ensure the safety of the entire financial ecosystem. “We safeguard consumer data, protect points of connection, and take a forward-looking approach to mitigating the risks we face today as well as the ones we’ll encounter tomorrow. We are leaders in many fields, and this is particularly true for cybersecurity. We set the benchmark for how companies should approach their own security and shape the standards that will govern the space for years to come. As an organization, we invest in the people, processes, and technology that help us secure the Mastercard ecosystem,” Elgibali said.

In the field of cybersecurity, Mastercard operates under three guiding principles: culture, collaboration, and empowerment.

“We work with our partners to develop innovative cybersecurity solutions to safeguard digital payments with the aim of building a secure and inclusive digital future. We are leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to help detect cyberattacks, data breaches, and fraud, making the digital ecosystem safer for governments, banks, merchants, and consumers,” Elgibali added.

Mastercard’s partnership with Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) under their Cyber Forward program boosts cyber resilience across the financial industry and payments ecosystem.

“We also help safeguard confidence in digital interactions by providing people and companies with all the information necessary to protect themselves against cyberthreats. In collaboration with the Global Cyber Alliance, we released a free Cybersecurity Toolkit for SMEs. Meanwhile, the Mastercard Trust Center features toolkits, insights, and information on products and solutions to enable businesses to adopt a proactive cybersecurity posture,” Elgibali added.

Mastercard has also made strategic acquisitions of companies with industry-leading cybersecurity capabilities, such as Brighterion, RiskRecon, and NuData, which enables it to stay at the forefront of innovation to combat emerging cyberthreats.

Harnessing AI for Innovation

As one of the most renowned innovators in the payment services industry, Mastercard is also turning to AI to improve its offerings.

“We combine our traditional payment solutions with AI, data analytics, cybersecurity and digital identity, and apply our technology and expertise to areas such as business-to-business payments, SME digital enablement, cross-border trade, welfare disbursements and urban mobility,” Elgibali said.

In 2020, Mastercard launched Cyber Secure, a first-of-its-kind AI-powered suite of tools that allows banks to assess cyber risk across their ecosystem and prevent potential breaches.

The company’s latest milestone in this domain is the opening of the Global Center for Advanced AI and Cyber Technology in Dubai, a joint project with the UAE government that aims to enhance AI capabilities and readiness in the region. Drawing on Mastercard’s technical knowledge and expertise, the initiative supports the UAE National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence 2031, which seeks to position the country as a global leader in AI.

Initially, the center will focus on developing AI-powered solutions to combat financial crimes, secure the digital ecosystem and drive inclusive growth in the UAE and beyond. It will also serve as a hub to nurture local AI talent, including data engineers and data scientists, to accelerate AI innovation globally and service customers around the world from the UAE.

This center builds on the success of Mastercard’s AI Garage in India, established in 2019, which seeks to speed up AI adoption among merchants, technology partners, and acquirers. It also complements its eight technology centers in the U.S., Canada, and India.

In February 2023, Mastercard joined forces with Network International to introduce its Brighterion AI technology across the region, providing transaction fraud screening and merchant monitoring to acquirers and businesses.

Through the world’s largest behavioral network, monitoring billions of events yearly, Mastercard’s customers benefit from NuData’s extensive intelligence, preventing most verification attacks. Its NuDetect technology received recognition as the Most Critical Solution in the Last 30 Years of Cybersecurity by SC Magazine.

Meanwhile, RiskRecon has initiated the Global Cybersecurity Alliance Program, integrating their cyber risk management scores into leading cyber software and tools, creating a comprehensive, integrated cyber risk platform. This simplifies companies’ access to and understanding of their risk scores.

Fostering an Inclusive Culture

Amid Mastercard’s broad-spectrum developments in technology and payment solutions, diversity, equity, and inclusion remain a top priority. In Elgibali’s words, the company believes “in an equitable world where humanity unites, prosperity is shared and opportunity is open to all”.

This commitment starts right from Mastercard’s hiring process, where fairness and inclusivity is ensured for all job positions and roles. The company is also dedicated to providing equal pay for equal work and upholds consistent parental leave policies.

These initiatives underline Mastercard’s dedication to diversity and inclusion, which is being prioritized both internally among its own employees and externally in the communities they serve.  In addition, the company actively strives to achieve gender parity throughout its operations.

Currently, 40 percent of Mastercard’s workforce in the Middle East and North Africa region consists of women. Notably, the technology giant has made substantial strides in gender diversity in countries like Saudi Arabia, where 28 percent of its workforce comprises women, significantly surpassing the market standard. Similarly, it has exceeded market benchmarks for women’s representation in the UAE at 42 percent and in Qatar at 45 percent. In January 2022, the company signed an official pledge spearheaded by the UAE Gender Balance Council that aims to increase women’s representation in senior and middle management roles in the country to 30 percent by 2025.

Emphasizing their dedication to equality, Elgibali stressed, “Equality is one of the foundational cores of our commitment to building an inclusive, high-performing culture.”

Mastercard’s efforts to empower women have earned it a spot on the Bloomberg Gender Equality Index since its inception in 2016. Beyond the company, Mastercard is committed to empowering women globally.

Another showcase of Mastercard’s support for women’s role in SME growth is its partnership with the international organization Women Choice to establish the Social Innovation Incubator for Women’s Employment. Together, they seek to create 1 million jobs for women across the MENA region in the next five years.

For the 25th anniversary of Priceless, Mastercard launched a campaign culminating in the issue of a coffee table book titled “Lasting Legacy – Honoring 25 Visionaries to Celebrate 25 Years of Priceless”. The publication highlights the journeys of some of the world’s most renowned female trailblazers in arts, sports, politics, financial services, and beyond with the aim of inspiring readers – male and female alike – to bridge the gender gap and foster inclusivity.

“At Mastercard, we firmly believe that when you educate a woman, you empower a community. That’s why we seek to provide women and girls with access to the knowledge and skills required to support themselves and their families,” Elgibali said.

To advance social progress, Mastercard is offering practical training for women on topics related to business, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship. In addition, the company aspires to empower women to take on significant roles in the tech industry and contribute to economic development.

To achieve this objective, Mastercard is building partnerships with local educational institutions to launch its global Girls4Tech program that seeks to equip girls with futureproof core technology skills. To date, over 4 million girls in 63 countries have benefited from the award-winning initiative that is available in 20 languages, including Arabic. This means the company is well on its way to reaching its target of 5 million girls worldwide by 2025.

Empowering Businesses for Economic Growth

Mastercard  plays a vital role in empowering small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), a cornerstone of economic growth in the region.

Small businesses account for over 90 percent of all companies in the Arab world and serve as key drivers of job creation. As an example, in the UAE, SMEs represent 94 percent of operating companies, contributing more than 50 percent to the national GDP.

According to the latest Mastercard SME Confidence Index, SMEs in the MENA region have identified embracing omnichannel digital payments (92 percent), digitizing business operations (91 percent), and training and upskilling staff (90 percent) as the main drivers of growth.

“At Mastercard, we provide digital payment solutions for startups and SMEs that enable them to pay and get paid quickly at low transaction costs, expand their reach, and deliver a seamless experience for their customers,” Elgibali said.

Mastercard has curated The Entrepreneur’s Odyssey specifically for the medium and small business community. This innovative digital education platform brings together a range of world-class academic and business resources to help small enterprises learn and thrive.

Mastercard’s goal is to bring 1 billion people and 50 million micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) worldwide into the digital economy by 2025. An integral part of this objective is empowering 25 million women entrepreneurs with the tools and resources needed to grow their businesses. Remarkably, the company achieved this global milestone ahead of schedule in June.

Mastercard offers businesses of all sizes a range of solutions to make and receive payments, including commercial cards, offerings for SMEs, and acceptance solutions like Tap on Phone.

A prime example of the company’s efforts to support small businesses is their collaboration with tmam, a leading multi-currency corporate card and spend management platform in the MENA region, aimed at assisting SMEs across GCC markets in digitizing their corporate expenses.

In Pakistan, Mastercard collaborated with the Bank of Punjab and the Pakistan Software Export Board to introduce the Mastercard Freelancer Digital Account and Card. This initiative helps freelancers and IT professionals access global services and receive payments from over 210 jurisdictions.

“We also partnered with Mercy Corps to bring its digital mentorship platform MicroMentor to Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. MicroMentor connects small businesses with mentors so that they can get access to ‘just in time’ mentorship – support on a specific topic or problem right when they need it,” Elgibali said.

Driving Digital Transformation Through Fintech Innovation

Mastercard is collaborating with fintech companies across the region to co-create locally relevant payment solutions. The company provides fintech innovators with funds, technology, and expertise that enable them to scale and grow. On the other hand, they help the tech giant understand local consumers and develop products and services that meet their exact needs.

In Saudi Arabia, Mastercard joined forces with Fintech Saudi to accelerate the development of the thriving fintech industry in the Kingdom. The collaboration allows innovative fintech players across the country to leverage the company’s expertise, advisory services, and solutions to take their offerings to the next level and pursue new opportunities.

In addition, Mastercard entered a strategic partnership with DIFC to provide fintech startups and established players with access to the company’s network and expertise with a focus on creating new payment solutions and digital services as well as enhancing existing ones.

In Bahrain, the company is collaborating with EazyPay to allow merchants and e-commerce businesses to benefit from frictionless digital checkout technology that removes the need for manual card and password entry for online shoppers.

Meanwhile, Mastercard’s strategic partnership with OPay allows consumers and merchants in the UAE, Egypt, and other countries to engage with companies across the globe.

Read more: Mastercard fully invested in financial inclusion in Bahrain, Africa

Championing Sustainability for Future Generations

As a global tech company, Mastercard has notched up numerous achievements in payment services and beyond. Paying it all forward, the company continues to champion sustainability. And we can consider this steadfast commitment as Mastercard’s gift to future generations.

“Sustainability is much more than a buzzword for us – it serves as a guiding principle for everything we do. Our scale and reach enable us to achieve measurable impact as we drive transparency, accountability, and integrity across our network. Our focus on People, Planet and Prosperity drives us to engage our entire ecosystem in initiatives that promote the adoption of sustainable practices,” Elgibali said.

In line with Mastercard’s dedication to reducing its carbon footprint, the company aims to achieve net-zero emissions across its operations by 2040.

In 2020, Mastercard took the initiative by establishing the Priceless Planet Coalition, a global effort that brings together businesses in the pursuit of sustainability to restore 100 million trees with the goal of helping combat climate change. In the UAE, the company is focused on the restoration of mangrove forests and other coastal ecosystems in line with the country’s ambitious target of planting 100 million mangroves by 2030.

Furthermore, Mastercard is championing payment cards produced from 100 percent recycled plastics. In the Middle East, it has partnered with the National Bank of Bahrain, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, and Al Hilal Bank, which have all committed to a 100 percent shift to sustainable cards. This year has witnessed an exciting new announcement in this domain: In a first move for a payment network, all of Mastercard’s newly produced plastic payment cards will be made from more sustainable materials as of January 1, 2028.

In collaboration with Swedish fintech company Doconomy, the company has also developed the Mastercard Carbon Calculator, a handy tool through which banks enable their customers to track the carbon footprint of their purchases.

“Climate change is a momentous challenge, and no single government, organization, or corporation can tackle it alone. With the 28th U.N. Climate Change Conference coming to the UAE this November, and the UAE leadership having declared 2023 as the Year of Sustainability, the focus on embracing sustainable and climate-friendly principles has never been higher. We must use this momentum to build global synergies aimed at leveraging advanced technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve resources and protect the environment. Only if we work together can we leave a healthy planet for future generations,” Elgibali said.

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