Corporate View: Sultan Boudargham, Nirvana Travel & Tourism

Published: Sep 2023
Sultan Boudargham, Chief Finance Officer, Nirvana Travel & Tourism

Technology and ambition drive treasury at Nirvana

Sultan Boudargham’s career break came when he was headhunted to join a fast-growing travel group in the UAE. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he discusses how the belief and trust of his senior colleagues has supported his career journey, explains how technology is transforming treasury and the travel industry, and gives some advice for those climbing the corporate ladder.

Sultan Boudargham

Chief Finance Officer
UAE travel group Nirvana was founded in 2007 and offers accommodation, hotel booking, online ticketing and travel management services. Nirvana Travel & Tourism serves customers worldwide and seeks to revolutionise the travel and tourism industry by investing in technology to enhance the way it provides services. Services include Corporate, Leisure, Private Jets and Events Management, and the company targets ambitious plans to expand globally.

This July, Sultan Boudargham, CFO of Abu Dhabi headquartered travel group Nirvana Travel & Tourism, oversaw a unique partnership between one of the region’s largest travel companies and payment group Mastercard that allows Nirvana customers to tap into digital, end-to-end payment processes when they are booking flights, hotels or other travel services in the region.

Supporting Nirvana’s treasury function’s move away from traditional collection and payment methods to digital processes defines his role as CFO and increasingly informs his outlook for the whole sector in a region where old-fashioned payments still dominate. “I believe that IT is the main driver of growth in the travel industry and my focus has always been on enhancing IT solutions to grow the company,” he says in a reflection of a passion for change and progress that has shaped his career from the beginning.

Like many treasurers and finance officers, Boudargham didn’t set out on this career path and nor did he seek a career in travel. His first taste of treasury came in an accounting role, born from necessity as he sought to support himself while he studied electronic engineering and IT in his native Lebanon. To cover the costs of his education, he worked in a local audit firm. It was 2005 by the time he graduated, and political instability triggered by the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, meant it was difficult to find a job at home. He decided to move to the UAE where he landed a job as a cashier in a small travel and tourism company, Al Jaber Travel, in downtown Abu Dhabi.

Within two days he was promoted to the accounts department where it wasn’t long before he turned his IT expertise to overhauling the company’s antiquated accounting processes. “This was my chance to make an impact and introduce new software. I was promoted up the ranks and stayed with this company until 2012,” he recalls.

His next move up came when he was headhunted by the CEO of Nirvana Travel who was scouting for a chief accountant for the fast-growing company. Back then, Nirvana was still small and primarily focused on bespoke corporate travel. Today the company comprises four independent entities and is one of the UAE’s biggest online travel and logistics service providers with more than 70 branches worldwide. Nirvana is a leading travel agent for Emirates and Etihad and a key service provider for many UAE government entities and Boudargham draws a direct link between his own career growth and the company taking off.

It is a fitting juncture in the conversation to discuss the importance of changing jobs when the path ahead becomes blocked. As an Accounts Receivables Manager at Al Jaber, he was itching to get higher up the ladder, but a promotion was impossible because other, more senior colleagues, were ahead of him in the queue for promotion. “I couldn’t have got any higher up the ladder,” he says.

It also leads him to reflect on the importance of luck, and why we should seize opportunities when they arrive. The unexpected invitation for an interview with the CEO of Nirvana changed the course of his career path. “I took the call and attended the interview. We have chances to change in our life which we either grab or lose.” That pivotal interview also engrained in him the value of relationships and the importance of seizing and nurturing relationships that are based on an instant synergy and connection. His first meeting at Nirvana was easy and smooth; he felt immediately comfortable sharing his ideas and ambitions, particularly around the role of technology in treasury. Now he describes his relationship with Nirvana CEO Alaa Al Ali like family. “We have become so close he is like an older brother to me.”


It wasn’t long before Boudargham was empowered to use his financial and technical experience to support Nirvana’s growth. For example, he has overseen the introduction of an innovative new search and booking platform in a partnership with Citi and Mastercard that has streamlined the company’s payments operation, improved working capital and increased liquidity. As well as creating more breathing space in terms of working capital, the process has facilitated faster reconciliation and booking turnaround time, a critical element to Nirvana’s growth. “People want to be able to just click a button to search and book online,” he says. The overhaul has included a new booking engine or platform that uses APIs to connect Nirvana’s customers to travel industry suppliers like hotels and airlines around the world. “It ensures our agents have the maximum content available to sell to our customers,” he explains. “The aim is that a customer can ask for anything, any service, and we will be able to offer it.”

Instant payments are crucial to solving the main challenge and bottleneck to customer service in the region, he continues. “If a customer requests a service, it’s our job to procure it and pay the supplier to ensure we don’t lose the hotel or the flight, but it’s not that easy a process. Bottlenecks appear in wire transfers to pay suppliers overseas to the extent it can take two days for money to reach a hotel by which time the chances are it is fully booked.” One of the challenges inherent in the new platform was convincing suppliers to use the payment solution. He spent time explaining its benefits, particularly with local airlines. “Suppliers were reluctant to accept the payment solution,” he says.


Nirvana’s adoption of the new technology and preparedness to innovate has highlighted the importance of leadership, something Boudargham has benefited from and strives to emulate. Alongside his CEO, he credits Nirvana’s shareholders for backing the overhaul in the company’s payments and booking platform. Indeed, his career progression has depended on senior colleagues believing in him. “I had their full trust and freedom to explore and develop the new platform,” he says. “You must think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions. Lots of people are thinking faster than you and will overtake you. You have to think and figure out innovative ideas and solutions to improve your working experience.”

He is particularly mindful of the difference between a leader and a boss. A leader, he says, is a person who charts a ship to its destination; a leader shares and works with colleagues, imparting a belief in the task at hand so that everyone falls in behind. “A leader combines humility, wisdom and knowledge,” he says. In contrast, a boss “sits in a chair giving orders,” adding that leadership is inspirational and liberating. “If you are ordered to do something, you will never do it from the heart. Because my CEO trusted me and gave me the freedom to try something, he has pushed me to achieve what I have done.”

One aspect of his character that stands out is that much of Boudargham’s recent technological knowledge – particularly keeping up with the pace of change – is self-taught. He keeps up to speed with treasury tech by studying at home, spending time on social media, meeting people and staying in touch with providers. “I am very aware of the importance of staying across what’s happening,” he says. It helps, he says, that he is “more of a listener than a speaker,” and he says that as his network grows, so does his ability to connect with other people to garner insights, innovation and creativity. “Every time you connect with people new ideas appear around how to solve problems, and what might help,” he reflects.

Boudargham says that having time on hand to spend his evenings researching and studying is partly a consequence of his young family (his children are two and five) living in Lebanon since the pandemic. “We thought it was better that they live in Lebanon in a house with a garden rather than in a big city,” he says. He hopes they will return to live in the UAE this September. “It is hard living away from your family,” he says. “I get free time to think, but being with my family is much more important.”

The future

The future doesn’t only promise longed-for reunification with his family. Looking ahead, Boudargham wants to use the technology and solutions he has developed at Nirvana to support other businesses in the region build automated, end-to-end payment solutions, transforming corporate billing processes. “Treasury should depend on technology at a high level,” he says. “A treasury department is only fully functional if it can ensure timely payments and reconciliations that are risk free.”

For many companies in the region, the relationship with their customers is still based on local purchase orders and billing processes in a traditional environment. He says that overhauling these complicated payment processes involves working with local banks, many of which continue to resist new technology and common standards. His treasury wish is for a different payments system that connects the different banks together in a seamless journey, allowing companies to enhance sales volume and reduce burdensome reconciliation. “If a local corporate wants to pay a supplier in Singapore, why does the payment have to go via their local bank, the central bank, a corresponding bank and a beneficiary bank?” he questions. “It’s such a long road for that payment to reach the right destination. I want to support automated payment processes for other businesses with the solution we have developed at Nirvana.”

He is also keen to explore the role of AI in helping research holiday destinations in the service industry. “I envisage that AI will really help agents find more options and solutions for customers. The travel industry is so big, and using AI will help agents meet customer requests and research attractions.”

Alongside automation and integrating new technology, he says his focus will remain on risk management and thinking strategically as he continues grow treasury at Nirvana. He will also seek to nurture diversity at the group, not only gender diversity but also by encouraging young people into the profession. He concludes with a nod to his other, growing passion. “I would like to travel more too! I love the UK, Canada and Australia, particularly.”

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