iFX EXPO International 2023: Equiti Group CEO Iskandar Najjar talks MENA expansion, UAE crypto regulation

abdelaziz Fathi

iFX EXPO International is finally back! The renowned event for the Forex industry took place in Limassol, Cyprus between September 19-21, 2023 and this year’s show offered abundant networking opportunities for attendees.

FinanceFeeds interviews

With the event buzzing in full swing, Nikolai Isayev, Editor in Chief of FinanceFeeds, took the opportunity to interview Iskandar Najjar, CEO of Equiti Group. Iskandar is an industry veteran with almost two decades of experience in the global financial markets. His leadership has been instrumental in driving the growth and expansion of Equiti Group since 2017, positioning it as a dynamic and rapidly evolving player in the financial industry.

FinanceFeeds kicked off the conversation by asking Najjar about Equiti’s recent partnership with MK Enterprise in Qatar, which focuses on offering B2B fintech solutions, including decentralized digital asset exchanges, physical commodities, and advanced payment solutions.

Najjar explained that the move comes as Equiti has evolved from a retail broker into a fintech group focused on brokerage solutions, trading technologies, payment solutions, and the digital asset space.

Equiti’s venture into Qatar also comes at a time when the country is experiencing rapid growth, particularly post-World Cup, with a surge in external investments. CEO noted that Equiti’s approach to the Qatari market involves a dual focus on B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) landscapes.

In the B2C space, the company is exploring potential partnerships with banks, recognizing the nascent stage of this market segment. Meanwhile, in the B2B arena, Equiti is keenly concentrating on B2C payment solutions, seeking to provide an extensive range of solutions through an acquisition strategy. The company is also actively developing its payment gateway this year to upgrade its capabilities.

Najjar was also excited about Equiti’s digital asset exchange, which is being launched in cooperation with the Dubai government. He said that Equiti is one of 50 companies to be granted an MVP status to push its product through the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA). Equiti’s plans include the launch of an SME exchange in Qatar and is also looking to launch a gold tokenization solution for clients.

The discussion then delved into Equiti’s strategic acquisition of digital payment technology provider Cloud Invest in May. We asked Iskandar Najjar about the opportunities and synergies that Equiti expects to gain from its takeover.

Najjar said that the deal was initially motivated by a desire to improve operational efficiencies. Equiti has developed a product that replaces existing point-of-sale (POS) devices with a mobile payment solution for merchants. After working with Cloud Invest, one of the acquirer technology providers for this product, Equiti saw a lot of synergies and decided to acquire the company.

Cloud Invest has been around for over 12 years and has a wide range of products in the acquirer and issuer spaces. Equiti plans to expand Cloud Invest’s products into new markets, such as Africa and Saudi Arabia. Notably, Equiti has already gained traction in several African markets with its technologies, partnering with prominent banks. In Saudi Arabia, Equiti has made inroads with major retailers. The company’s plans are now centered on expanding its presence in these markets and advancing the adoption of Cloud Invest’s products.

As the interview progressed, we discussed the company’s global expansion plans and its focus on digital investment solutions. Back in February, Equiti opened its 10th office in the prestigious Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi after acquiring all the necessary approvals from the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA).

Initially, Najjar highlighted the growing importance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), particularly Abu Dhabi, as a pivotal bridge connecting the East and the West. The region has witnessed an influx of tourists and investors from Asia, Africa, and Europe, with the scale and speed of investments increasing over time. He highlighted the UAE’s strong focus on regulation and state-of-the-art infrastructure, which positions it as a leader in today’s global financial landscape.

He also spoke about Equiti’s commitment to localization, and its plans to tailor its products and services to the specific needs of clients in the UAE and the wider East-West corridor.

As such, Equiti’s presence in Abu Dhabi offers a multitude of opportunities for its global clients. In the meantime, the company possesses the necessary capacity, technology, and resources to not only scale its operations but also to adapt its solutions to the specific needs of clients. Najjar noted that clients in Abu Dhabi may have distinct requirements from those in Dubai or other regions, necessitating the establishment of local touchpoints to build trust and credibility.

When Equiti announced the launch of the Abu Dhabi operation, the company hinted that there were some plans to expand in Asia and perhaps South America or Latin America. We asked Mr. Najjar to give our viewers some insight into those plans going forward, such as locations, regulatory considerations, and countries in those regions that are attractive to them. We were also curious to know if he has any tentative launch dates in mind for these expansions.

According to Equiti’s CEO, entry into Latin America has primarily been driven by market demand, and the company has maintained a somewhat reactive approach in the region. Notably, Equiti already has a foothold in Colombia and is actively pursuing licenses in other Latin American countries.

What sets Equiti apart is its commitment to a “regulation-first” philosophy. The company is actively engaging with local regulators to ensure its product offerings align with regional regulations. Moreover, the broker has been customizing its products to meet the specific demands of the Latin American market.

Najjar added that Equiti Group’s strategy in Asia has seen a strong focus on the B2B sector since its inception in 2017. However, the B2C segment has been more reactive, and Equiti is now taking proactive steps to rectify this. Within this context, the company plans to acquire a single core license that will serve as the cornerstone for its B2C expansion into Asia. It anticipates going live with this license in either the first or second quarter of 2024.

Najjar also noted that while most of Equiti’s peers have initially focused on Asian markets and then expanded globally, their approach is somewhat reversed. Equiti is taking the opposite route, starting with other markets and then expanding into Asia.

The conversation also touched upon the recent appointment of Liam Conway as the new CEO of Equiti Capital UK and the opportunities that lie ahead for the company in this domain.

Najjar said that Conway, having previously served as Equiti’s deputy CFO, is a “perfect fit” for Equiti Capital UK. As such, this appointment was a natural progression that makes sense for Equiti’s FCA-regulated business. He also cited Conway’s depth of understanding of the London market and his experience in the financial services industry.
On the operational front, Najjar explained that Equiti is investing heavily in its London operations as it holds a pivotal position within the group’s global trading infrastructure. He described the City as a “global hub” and a “global liquidity hub” for the wider group and some of its B2B client base as well.

Toward the end of our interview, Najjar shared his thoughts on the UAE crypto regulations and how they provide a much-needed template around the handling of crypto assets. In contrast, the regulatory environment in the US is still murky due to the lack of clarity. This uncertainty is holding up efforts to establish clear guidelines, which is a necessary step for those operating out of the US jurisdiction to understand what they need to do to comply.

Najjar highlighted the unique opportunity presented by the UAE’s regulatory landscape, which, in his words, is characterized by youthfulness and a profound understanding of the digital assets sector. The UAE boasts a cadre of knowledgeable individuals occupying key regulatory positions, demonstrating a strong grasp of the technological solutions that define this space.

Notably, the UAE’s Minister of AI, a dynamic and proactive leader, plays a central role in advancing the country’s digital economy mandate. The regulatory environment in the UAE is marked by a pragmatic approach, with an openness to explore innovative solutions while ensuring the protection of investors and stakeholders.

The balance between regulation and innovation is a crucial theme in Equiti Group’s active participation in this nascent space.

Equiti CEO concluded that proper governance is essential to prevent pitfalls while avoiding the stifling of innovation through excessive regulation. Najjar views the crypto space as fundamentally different from traditional financial models. Consequently, it requires legislation that can adapt to this unique landscape. It has been imperative, in his opinion, to start with a blank canvas and build regulatory frameworks from the ground up.

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