Citi considers Saudi expansion as banks aim to capitalize on reforms

Citi has already played an active role in Saudi Arabian finance and was one of the banks that helped to arrange the government’s $11 billion bond issue last month. (Reuters)
Updated 02 May 2018
0

Citi considers Saudi expansion as banks aim to capitalize on reforms

RIYADH: Citigroup is considering seeking a full banking license in Saudi Arabia as Western banks aim to capitalize on Saudi economic reforms, with rival HSBC announcing it has won mandates for several privatizations in the kingdom.
More than a dozen foreign banks have licenses to operate branches in Saudi Arabia, battling for business resulting from the kingdom’s efforts to itself off reliance on oil revenues.
US bank Citi ended a five-decade presence in Saudi Arabia in 2004 with the sale of its 20 percent stake in Samba Financial but in 2015 won permission to invest directly in the local stock market and in January this year gained approval to begin investment banking operations in the kingdom.
“We’re looking at whether or not we should expand our activities here into a full banking license,” James Forese, the president and chief executive of the bank’s institutional clients group, said at a business conference in Riyadh.
Other banks seeking a Saudi license include Credit Suisse, while Goldman Sachs plans to expand its services in the kingdom after being cleared to trade equities there.
The banks are vying for a role in Saudi Aramco’s planned initial public offering, which could float up to 5 percent of the state oil giant and make it the world’s biggest oil company by market capitalization.
Citi has already played an active role in Saudi Arabian finance and was one of the banks that helped to arrange the government’s $11 billion bond issue last month.
The kingdom is now working on a pipeline of privatizations aimed at generating up to 40 billion riyals ($10.7 billion) in non-oil revenues by 2020 and creating up to 12,000 jobs, according to an official document published last month.
HSBC has been mandated for several of the planned privatizations and will announce them very soon, Samir Assaf, HSBC’s chief executive of global banking and markets, said at Wednesday’s conference.
The bank is “very much contributing to the privatization program,” he said.
HSBC Saudi Arabia is already acting as an adviser on the sale process for the kingdom’s flour milling sector and the Saudi Stock Exchange’s planned flotation. It also has an advisory role on the proposed Aramco listing.


Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

Updated 18 July 2019
0

Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

  • Some Iranian officials worry that “mining” is abusing the subsidized electricity
  • Iranian Bitcoin miners are purchasing more affordable Chinese ready-made computers

TEHRAN: Iranians feeling the squeeze from US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s ailing economy are increasingly turning to such digital currencies as Bitcoin to make money, prompting alarm in and out of the country.
In Iran, some government officials worry that the energy-hungry process of “mining” Bitcoin is abusing Iran’s system of subsidized electricity; in the United States, some observers have warned that cryptocurrencies could be used to bypass the Trump administration’s sanctions targeting Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The Bitcoin craze has made the front pages of Iranian newspapers and been discussed by some of the country’s top ayatollahs, and there have been televised police raids on hidden computer farms set up to bring in money by “mining” the currency.
Like other digital currencies, Bitcoin is an alternative to money printed by sovereign governments around the world. Unlike those bills, however, cryptocurrencies are not controlled by a central bank. Bitcoin and other digital currencies like it trade globally in highly speculative markets without any backing from a physical entity.
As a result, computers around the world “mine” the data, meaning they use highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The verified transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain. Any time “miners” add a new block to the blockchain, they are rewarded with a payment in bitcoins.
To work, the expensive specialized computers require a lot of electricity to power their processors and to keep them cool. In Iran, “miners” have an edge because electricity is cheap thanks to longtime government subsidies. “Miners” also buy cheaper Chinese ready-made computers to do the work.
But the constant raids and authorities’ conflicting statements on the issue have Bitcoin “miners” in Iran incredibly leery of being identified. Those contacted by The Associated Press refused to speak about their work or to say how much they earn from their “mining.”
But they acknowledge they do this to make some money at a time when Iran’s currency, the rial, tumbled from 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, to around 120,000 rials to $1 now.
“It is clear that here has turned into a heaven for ‘miners,’” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, recently told AP in an interview. “The business of ‘mining’ is not forbidden in law but the government and the Central Bank have ordered the Customs Bureau to ban the import of (mining machines) until new regulations are introduced.”
Ali Bakhshi, the head of the Iran Electrical Industry Syndicate, said earlier this month that the country’s Energy Ministry likely would boost costs for Bitcoin “miners” to 7 cents for each kilowatt of electricity they consume, a massive increase from the current half-cent but still almost half the cost of electricity in the United States, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Still, there are concerns, especially among Iran’s religious leaders, that people might try to circumvent paying extra for the electricity as well as using digital currency to hide or move money illicitly.
Tabnak, a hard-line news website associated with a former commander of the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, quoted three ayatollahs describing Bitcoin as either problematic or “haram,” meaning forbidden. Islam prescribes strict rules about finance.
But Jahromi said clerics became more receptive to the idea after his staff briefed them that Bitcoin had a value in the real world, which is required under Islamic finance. Islamic finance also prohibits gambling, the payment of interest and misleading others.
“Some of our top clerics have issued fatwas that say Bitcoin is money without a reserve, that it is rejected by Islamic and cybercurrencies are haram,” Jahromi said. “When we explain to them this is not a currency but an asset, they change their mind.”
Iran has tried to keep its economic situation in check by controlling foreign currency rates and cutting down on those moving their money from the rial to other currencies, including Bitcoin. Last year, the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Mohammad Reza Pour-Ebrahimi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s economic commission, as suggesting that about $2.5 billion left Iran through digital currency purchases. He did not elaborate and authorities have not discussed it since.
The US, meanwhile, has been keeping a close watch on Iranians holding bitcoins. In November, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, accused two Iranian men of hacking and holding hostage computer systems of over 200 American entities to extort them for Bitcoin, including the cities of Newark and Atlanta.
“As Iran becomes increasingly isolated and desperate for access to US dollars, it is vital that virtual currency exchanges, peer-to-peer exchangers and other providers of digital currency services harden their networks against these illicit schemes,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Not so, said Jahromi.
“Cybercurrencies are effective in bypassing sanctions when it comes to small transactions, but we do not see any special impact in them as far as mega-transactions are concerned,” he said. “We cannot use them to go around international monetary mechanisms.”