Imagine that you’re at a shopping mall in Saudi Arabia. You’ve been roaming around for hours looking for the perfect pair of shoes or even the latest tech gadget. Now you’re tired, thirsty and in need of a pick-me-up. You spot the nearest coffee shop and help yourself to an energising black coffee and rich cheese croissant while you relax on a plush sofa chair. Except you’re not in a coffee shop at all. You’re at the outpost of Saudi Arabia’s oldest bank, Alawwal. But don’t let its decades-old history fool you. This is no outdated bank. All you have to do is look around at artificial intelligence-powered screens luring in shoppers with offers on products, services, credit cards and of course, coffee.
The high-tech gizmos of Alawwal – formerly Saudi Hollandi – are a far cry from the bank’s origins in 1926, six years before King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The bank – whose name in Arabic means “first” – was originally founded in Jeddah by a Dutch entity called the Netherlands Trading Society. At the time, Muslim pilgrims from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) were in dire need of services on their long journey to Makkah.
“Prince Faisal – later King Faisal – went to Amsterdam. At the time, going on a trip like that wasn’t your average day trip,” explains Alawwal managing director Soren Nikolajsen. “The Dutch got the approval they wanted and opened a bank.”
In years following Prince Faisal’s historic trip, the bank played a key role in developing Saudi Arabia’s fledging pre-oil economy. The bank was involved in the first notes printed in the kingdom, financed the first import of Ford cars and, more importantly, facilitated payment for Saudi Arabia’s first oil exports – all this happened at a time when the Saudi finance minister kept the country’s economic records in a handwritten notebook in his pocket.