When Shahad Ibrahim Hasan Alhosani walked out onto the Camp Nou pitch in 2019, it wasn’t just a dream come true for the seven-year-old Emirati girl. While Shahad got to hold Lionel Messi’s hand and watch her heroes, RAKBANK were celebrating the culmination of a hugely successful campaign with FC Barcelona.

Having signed a player called Rakitic and a shirt sponsor called Rakuten in recent years, Barcelona added Rakbank to its ranks in June 2018, as the club’s official UAE banking partner. News of the five-year partnership between arguably the world’s biggest football club and the Ras al Khaimah-based bank was somewhat surprising given their respective profiles.

So how exactly did the UAE’s eighth biggest bank manage to link up with FC Barcelona? Frederic de Melker, Managing Director Personal Banking at RAKBANK, was the man who brokered the deal and insists it was simply the sharing of common goals that brought the two unlikely partners together.

“It is fair to say that FC Barcelona is a big brand for a midsize bank from the UAE,” De Melker tells Sport Industry Insider. “RAKBANK wanted to diversify into sport and we were looking at what different initiatives could be a catalyst for this. For Barcelona, the UAE is a market they wanted to be part of and we obviously have a significant footprint here. It was a good fit.

“Why did Barcelona choose RAKBANK? Because we came with a good plan, a long-term plan with many different elements. Importantly we are FC Barcelona’s partnering bank so we can work on many other ideas beyond just a co-branded credit card, which is the relationship most banks have with football clubs. This is a deeper relationship.”

The benefits for RAKBANK are clear given FC Barcelona’s renown, while the Blaugranas decided that Ras-al-Khaimah’s eponymous bank would be the best fit to help them engage with their fans in the UAE.

“We wanted to associate with football because it brings excitement and taps into the passion of our customers,” De Melker explains. “Barcelona have the biggest fan base in the UAE and in the GCC they have the biggest footprint as a club and an enormous social media reach.  They want to connect to that base more clearly in the UAE and we can connect them with our customers, this is why it is a good relationship.

“The culture of FC Barcelona is something we can identify with. They are mas que un club [more than a club] and we want to be more than a bank. That is how a bank should be in 2020. Customers take a digital journey with us and they are part of our story. Decisions should always be made that are best for the customer and more sustainable for the bank.”

With La Liga and its two leading clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, immensely popular in the UAE, one might have expected more banks to have targeted the Spanish giants. Some arrangements have indeed been in place before but they were not being activated well.

“To partner with Barcelona is not easy of course. But for them I can honestly say it is not about the money – they really care about how the partnership will be activated. They have so many banks and other companies wanting to associate with them but they are very selective.

RAKBANK Barcelona credit card

 “FC Barcelona have been very cautious with who they want to deal with – they really want that long-term active relationship. They could see our passion for the project and that is why we have been successful. It also helps that RAKBANK is a mid-size organisation, which means we can show more flexibility and agility than bigger banks.”

The activations have come thick and fast since the agreement was signed in 2018, with RAKBANK rolling out their FC Barcelona credit card in 2018 before adding a new prepaid card last month.

“The concept of ‘partnership’ is really central here – we are not the sponsor; we are the partner,” De Melker says “We talk to Barcelona on a weekly basis and discuss new activations, new ideas that we’re having. Yes, the credit card was a more traditional first product, but it gives you a lot of room for benefits and it is really customer focused.

“The RAKBarcaRewards scheme gives our customers the chance to buy FC Barcelona merchandise and even get tickets for the Camp Nou. We have monthly competitions – this month you can win a signed shirt, next month we may send you to the game. That’s how the young Emirati girl Shahad ended up being Lionel Messi’s mascot for a Champions League game.

 “Her experience really showed how the dynamics of a partnership like ours with Barcelona can work. To provide these kinds of experiences to our customers gives us a fantastic feeling as a bank.”

Shahad, The First Emirati Girl Mascot!

Shahad who had never even seen a stadium became the First Emirati Girl Mascot at UEFA Champions League ⚽️ – thanks to RAKBANK & Mastercard! Here’s her #PricelessMascot journey from the UAE to Barcelona ✈️ and how the experience of walking amongst the greatest footballers 🤩 changed her life forever. Watch the video to see which footballer Shahad walked with!…شهد، الفتاة التي لم ترى ملعب كرة قدم من قبل، أصبحت اول مرافقة إماراتية لفريق دوري أبطال أوروبا بفضل راك بنك وماستركارد! اليكم رحلة شهد من الإمارات إلى برشلونة وكيف غيرت تجربت دخولها الملعب مع أفضل لاعبي كرة القدم في العالم مجرى حياتها للأبد. تابعوا الفيديو لتكتشفوا من رافقت شهد؟…#SheCanPlay #RAKBANK #Mastercard #SimplyBetter #UCL Mastercard

Posted by RAKBANK on Sunday, June 30, 2019

That “feeling” is an important, intangible upshot of the partnership with FC Barcelona but De Melker is also concerned with calculating the positive impact in more concrete terms.  

“On the product side, we can obviously measure the uptake on the cards. In our first year, we did three times as many as we expected, which is obviously a great result. We can then look at the spends on the card, see what kind of customers are using it and make sure that we are providing relevant benefits. We can also see social media reach accurately too, which allows Barcelona to understand how their fans here are engaging with them.

“The overall results so far point to us being delighted with this relationship with FC Barcelona. It’s a five-year partnership but I think from our side we will definitely want to go for another five years. Hopefully, our partners are thinking the same as it’s going very well.”

Beyond FC Barcelona, RAKBANK’s sporting portfolio is more community focused, with cycling and golf among the partner sports. De Melker stresses that while RAKBANK can make major waves with big-name partnerships, it is vital the bank also remains true to its Ras-al-Khaimah roots.

“Internationally, FC Barcelona is the only sports partner we need but locally we can see the value of sport. We focus on our home emirate of Ras-al-Khaimah and the events that take place in it, with cycling and golf our two main priorities.

“We sponsored the recent Dubai Eye golf tournament at Al Hamra Golf Club and we are also talking to the Abu Dhabi Sports Council at the moment about how to widen our sporting reach. We are a mid-sized bank and a community bank – this is not something we will ever forget.”