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Digital Saudi: My super contactless journey in Riyadh

So following on from my fantastic contactless Dubai experiment, I flew to Saudi Arabia yesterday.

I would normally use a local taxi from the airport – but this time I decided to check out Careem (Uber) and used that to summon a Lexus 350 with a local driver. “Kif Halik?” (How are you?) He asked me as I got in. “Zain, shukran” (Good, thanks) I replied. I got a raised eyebrow from the driver who, I hope was a tiny bit surprised I replied in Arabic.

My Arabic is still limited to talking about big houses and large garages, but I’m persevering with Duolingo every day. I am absolutely and wholly not at all fluent.

My first somewhat actual contactless experience came when, at the hotel reception, I paid with Apple Pay.

(I think this might have been possible in Dubai, also, but I didn’t check it – and the lady at reception had specifically requested for me to use my credit card.)

At the hotel reception though, I noticed it wasn’t busy so I asked the guy if I could ‘try contactless’. He looked non-plussed as he operated the point-of-sale device and turned it toward me. I flicked up Apple Pay with my AMEX card and… done.

“Thank you,” he said as he handed me over the receipt. (Yes, I know… that’s another question, paper receipts… but let us stick to the contactless topic!).

Mildly astonished, I then arrived at my room. I know using Apple Pay (or Google Pay) isn’t that big a deal – but, I can’t tell you how many people in Dubai (and in Europe) have said “ah, you’ll have some difficulty in Riyadh with your contactless challenge.”

I expected it to be a lot harder, I can tell you.

First, let’s get to the supermarket. This morning I went for a walk around my hotel here in Riyadh to see the area and to do some shopping for some essentials. Yes, I can buy water in the hotel but I like getting out and seeing how things work in the city.

I walked into a Panda supermarket nearby and the first thing I saw was this sign on the door. I couldn’t actually get a proper photo of it because the door kept opening… but there we go. On the sign were four logos: Mada (the local Saudi card scheme), Mastercard, Visa and… Apple Pay.

I resolved to test this as I walked around the store. I managed to avoid buying some gorgeous-looking cakes and stuck to the boring water purchase.

The moment of truth came when I headed to the checkout.

I actually prefer to use self-check-out, especially when I’m not entirely sure about the language and or the situation in new places. But they didn’t offer that here.

I queued up. I noticed the chap ahead of me brandishing his phone, ready to pay. I wondered if he was also using Apple Pay.

I don’t think it was. I managed to see the STC app open on his phone – and he paid using that. This is where my experience with Saudi payments infrastructure needs a bit of a boost – and that’s fundamentally why I’m here. Like many, I have marvelled at the ongoing success of Saudi mobile operator STC’s launch of STC Pay. A quick brief on STC Pay from their website:

stc pay is your all-in-one app. It gives you complete control over your finances, such as issuing cards, transferring money, paying bills, gaming & entertainment, and much more!

Source: STC website

So I think the chap ahead of me used Apple Pay… but I can’t quite be sure. I wondered if he was actually using an STC Mada card. Not sure.

My turn came. The chap behind the till rang up my purchases. I saw the total, nodded and tapped my Revolut Apple Pay card. Done. Shukran. Thank you.

Back at the hotel room, I resolved to check out the mobile offerings here in Riyadh. I had seen countless HungerStation bikes on my taxi journey from the airport and as I walked around the city, so that was my first stop.

HungerStation is one of the local Deliveroo/Talabat equivalents. I did first open up Talabat but found it a little sparse. No Talabat Mart. Limited choice of shops. I then did the same with Uber/Careem. That felt ok… but was somewhat limited compared to what I experienced from the same apps in UAE.

So I registered with HungerStation in about 20 seconds.

I found a retailer and ordered. I dutifully filled out my credit card details on the HungerStation app assuming that they wouldn’t have ‘pay with Apple Pay’ connectivity.

Yeah. I was wrong.

I got to the app’s check-out page and tapped Apple Pay. Boom. Sorted.

25 minutes later a polite chap arrived at the hotel reception with my water. Fast, efficient, and best-in-class as far as I’m concerned. Very impressive.

Here’s the order tracking screen:

A bit of local knowledge is always helpful though. One of the young chaps at the hotel reception said the best app for delivery is Jahez which focuses more on food delivery. He explained they prefer it because you don’t actually pay until the driver arrives with the goods – an important distinction from many of the other delivery app choices in the market.

As a case in point, he then pointed to a driver who had just arrived with two pizzas and some other food for the reception team. “Look, watch…” he said, showing me the confirmation screen on Jahez … he tapped the Apple Pay screen and paid there and thenas the driver handed over the pizzas.

So I will have to try Jahez later today.

This experience here in Riyadh is far from what I had expected based on the feedback I’d received from a lot of colleagues in the region and across Europe. Yes, I’ve just been *in* and around the hotel – and yes, I am not in the middle of nowhere hundreds of miles from the capital. But this experience, dear reader, is both really exciting and illuminating for me.

Let us see how things go once I’ve got around the city a little more – especially as I attend the upcoming Leap conference and event later this week.

Update: My thanks to Mohammed from Saudi Payments who commented on my LinkedIn post earlier today, highlighting that 97% of payments [I think physical payments] in Saudi are contactless. An astonishing figure. Thanks Mohammed.

[Note, I feel that it’s important I highlight that this post was written fully by a human called Ewan (me) and there was no ChatGPT deployed!]

Ewan is Founder and Editor of FinTech Profile and Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of mobile and FinTech industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

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