Cryptocurrency promise for UAE’s unbanked migrants — but not yet

Cryptocurrency promise for UAE’s unbanked migrants — but not yet
UAE is second-largest global sender of remittances to countries including the Philippines. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 August 2021

Cryptocurrency promise for UAE’s unbanked migrants — but not yet

Cryptocurrency promise for UAE’s unbanked migrants — but not yet
  • Migrants face high fees, long wait times to send money
  • Regulations on crypto assets still needed, experts say

DUBAI: Every month, 24-year-old parking attendant Ramesh Giri waits outside a money transfer office in Dubai to send $600 in cash to support his parents and two brothers in Nepal.
He dreads the routine, which costs him up to $7 each time and is keeping him from saving enough to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a restaurateur – but that could all change in the weeks ahead.
Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is moving closer to opening licensed cryptocurrency exchanges, a step that could boost financial inclusion for the millions of expatriates who make up most of the region’s workforce.
Using online wallets, migrants could one day be able to send remittances home with smaller fees — or none at all — and within minutes, skipping the long waits in the Gulf’s heat and humidity.
“It’s free,” said Giri, who has been learning about cryptocurrencies and, along with the speed and savings, sees the added potential of letting him keep track of his finances more easily on his smartphone.
“I hope it can help me see what’s happening with my money and be able to save — because I can’t right now,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

‘NO THRESHOLD’
According to the World Bank, about 1.7 billion adults around the world did not have bank accounts as of 2017 – more than a quarter of them in India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Many of those countries are among the top senders of migrant workers to the Gulf, where they work in construction, the hospitality industry or domestic work to send money back home to their families.
Government data show that out of the UAE’s population of more than 9 million, nearly 80 percent are expats.
Last year, the region sent $43 billion in remittances, making it the world’s second-highest sender after the United States, according to the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD).
The global think tank said the remittance industry makes up about 12 percent of the Emirates’ gross domestic product.
The UAE’s path toward digitising the industry began last year, when its Securities and Commodities Authority stipulated that anyone offering crypto assets in the Emirates must be formally licensed and comply with a range of anti-money laundering, cybersecurity and data protection laws.
So far, six companies have qualified under the regulations to create crypto exchanges, with two reaching the first stages of going live.
One of those, MidChains, is a crypto asset trading platform based in Abu Dhabi and is preparing to launch for trading.
Technically, the platform will be open to everyone. “There is no earnings threshold,” said MidChains co-founder and chief executive officer Basil Al Askari.
But he acknowledged that the documentation clients need to provide to meet regulations, including proof of residence, income and secure assets, means migrant workers will likely be shut out.
Askari said he hoped remittances will one day be a regular feature of the UAE’s cryptocurrency services.
“If you’re talking about finance and banking for the unbanked ... that’s where we want the technology to lead,” he said.
For now, though, access to cryptocurrency in the region will mainly be limited to trading firms, hedge fund investors and high-net-worth individuals. “It doesn’t really help (migrant workers) because they might not be able to go through the compliance requirements in order to open accounts,” Askari said.

PROTECTING DIGITAL ASSETS
Before cryptocurrency takes hold in the UAE, authorities need to boost awareness among users on how to safeguard their digital assets, said George Kuruvila, a partner at Fotis International Law Firm.
So far this year, Dubai residents have lost nearly $22 million in cryptocurrency scams, according to figures from the Dubai Police.
Kuruvila, whose firm advises clients in Dubai on financial technology regulations, says younger generations will be the first to learn how to trust cryptocurrencies and use them more securely.
“That same change is going to happen with migrant workers, but it’s not going to happen as fast,” he said, describing the demographic as more cautious with their money.
“It will happen in the next five to 10 years,” he added.
Part of that is due to one risk the UAE cannot mitigate, he said — the volatility of digital currencies.
Bitcoin, for example, had one of its most volatile months in May 2021, first increasing steadily before losing 35 percent of its value.
“Let’s say somebody puts all of their savings into bitcoin today. No one can guarantee that it won’t crash tomorrow. There is no regulator for that,” said Kuruvila.
Such highs and lows could be disastrous for anyone sending small amounts in remittances.
“When it comes to migrant workers, it’s their everyday bread and butter,” he said.
That volatility has already put off Emma Ogode, a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry in Dubai.
“I see it as betting money — you have to put in a certain amount. Then maybe you win, (but) if you don’t, you will have to put in more. Then, all your finances will go away,” said Ogode, 32.
She said she spends about a day every month calling different remittance offices to find the best exchange rates and transfer fees, before inevitably waiting in a long line to send money home.
But for her, cryptocurrency is not the answer.
“I don’t trust it,” she said.


Flexible-work platform attracts more than 10k Saudis since launch

Flexible-work platform attracts more than 10k Saudis since launch
Updated 18 September 2021

Flexible-work platform attracts more than 10k Saudis since launch

Flexible-work platform attracts more than 10k Saudis since launch
  • The ministry seeks to achieve a target of 57,000 contracts via the platform by the end of 2022

 

RIYADH: A platform to help workers find part-time and freelancing work in Saudi Arabia has managed to attract interests from more than 10,000 seekers of flexible work hours since May 2020, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development.

The ministry seeks to achieve a target of 57,000 contracts via the platform by the end of 2022, Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper reported, citing the ministry.

The ministry launched the platform, known as Marn, which offers hourly-based employment and does not require employers to pay end-of-service benefits.

The platform appeals to employers because it reduces their overheads and means they are only paying wages when they receive orders. The retail and wholesale sectors have benefited most from the flexible work system, along with the construction and logistics sectors, the newspaper added.

In 2020, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Ahmed Al-Rajhi, launched mrn.sa, platform.

Under the system, an employee’s working hours with a single employer should be less than half the total working hours at the facility.

The flexible work contracts are limited to Saudis only.


ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth
Updated 11 min 32 sec ago

ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

MOSCOW/RIYADH: In the crowded corridors of the Hilton Tashkent City, ACWA Power Chairman Mohammad Abunayyan talks quietly with key delegates of the Islamic Development Bank’s annual meeting in Uzbekistan, who approach him one after another.

Abunayyan, a lean, middle-aged, intelligent-looking man is with IDB officials celebrating the launch of the $100 million Economic Empowerment Fund for Uzbekistan earlier this month.

ACWA Power is planning on becoming one of the Saudi investors that will make up 45 percent of the fund, which is also being financed with money from the Islamic Development Bank and the Uzbek government.

ACWA’s contribution would be the latest in a long line of investments in the Central Asian nation, where the utility now has assets worth $4.6 billion having invested about $1.2 billion, according to the prospectus for its initial public offering that was launched earlier this month.

Although that is less than one tenth of the SR248 billion ($66 billion) of assets ACWA has accumulated globally since it was established in 2004 with what Abunayaan describes as a small equity investment. Abunayaan joined the board in 2008.

Beyond its home market in Saudi Arabia, ACWA also owns assets in Turkey, South Africa, Vietnam and Egypt.

Still, Uzbekistan is an important market for ACWA Power.

In 2020, the company was awarded three projects: Sirdarya Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) independent power producer (IPP) with 1,500 MW of gross contracted power capacity; the 500 MW Bash Wind IPP; and the 500 MW Dzhankeldy Wind IPP.

The company’s fourth and largest Uzbek asset in Uzbekistan is the Karakalpakstan 1,500 MW Wind IPP project, valued at $2 billion. The Karakalpakstan, Bash and Dzhankeldy projects are at advanced stages of development and Sirdarya IPP is under construction.

ACWA Power’s investments in Uzbekistan represent a sizeable chunk of total foreign direct investment (FDI) that the country has received in recent years.

“Uzbekistan attracted $2 billion in FDI in 2020 and targets another $5 billion this year,” Atabek Nazirov, director general of the Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan, told Arab News on the sidelines of the IDB’s two-day conference on Sept. 3.

Such investments mean a long-term relationship between ACWA Power and Uzbekistan.

“[In our projects] we need to lay the foundation for a long-term partnership, this is a relationship that lasts for 20, 25, 30 years,” Tom Teerlynck, executive vice president of ACWA Power, told Arab News at the IDB meeting.

“The early years go very smoothly because everybody is happy — agreements signed, infrastructure is being built, the services being provided,” he said. “But problems come in later when people in ministries or private companies change. So, it’s very important to lay very robust foundations.”

Uzbekistan officials are confident that ongoing reforms will propel economic growth, despite the global shock caused by COVID-19.

“In 2020, Uzbekistan was the only economy in the Central Asia region that did not have a negative gross domestic product [GDP],” said Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan’s Nazirov. “We were able to achieve just above 1 percent growth.”

The government is forecasting economic growth of 6.5 percent this year although that is a conservative scenario and it is hoping for closer to 7 percent, Ilhom Norkulov, Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of economic development and poverty reduction, told Arab News at the IDB meeting.

“For the next five years our target is to increase GDP to $100 billion so we are working to create conditions for the economy to grow 6-7 percent a year,” he said.

However, Uzbekistan’s economy is facing tailwinds in the form of a high inflation rate – expected at 10-11 percent this year – unemployment of 10.5 percent in 2020 (up from 5.8 percent in 2017) and a decline in average monthly wages to a low of $226 in the fourth quarter of 2018 from a peak of $415 in 2016, but back to $280 in the second quarter 2021, according to official data.

Government officials say they are fully aware of the issues, and maintaining economic reforms and income growth should ease the employment and wage conditions over the long run.


Italy tops list of countries importing Egyptian products during first half of year

Italy tops list of countries importing Egyptian products during first half of year
Updated 18 September 2021

Italy tops list of countries importing Egyptian products during first half of year

Italy tops list of countries importing Egyptian products during first half of year
  • Egyptian exports witnessed a remarkable increase during the first half of this year, by 35.4 percent

CAIRO: Official data revealed that Italy topped the list of the largest importers of Egyptian products during the first half of this year, recording $1.140 billion.

In second place was the US with Egyptian exports amounting to $1.103 billion. Saudi Arabia came in third place with $1.095 billion, followed by India in fourth place with exports worth $1.028 billion, and Turkey with total exports of $997 million.

According to data issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in Egypt, Egyptian exports witnessed a remarkable increase during the first half of this year, by 35.4 percent.

The data indicates an increase in the value of Egyptian exports to various countries to a record $19.4 billion, compared to $14.3 billion during the same period in 2020.

According to the data, the top 10 countries on the list accounted for 45.8 percent of the total value of Egyptian exports during the first half of this year. Petroleum products ranked first on the list of the 10 most important commodities exported by Egypt to various countries during the first half of this year, with a total of $2.7 billion.

In second place came crude oil exports with a value of $1.045 billion, followed by fresh fruits with a value of $943 million, ready-made garments with exports worth $920.2 million, fertilizers with $818.5 million, and plastics in their primary forms with $759.3 million.

CAPMAS data indicated that the top 10 commodities on the list represented 43.2 percent of the total value of Egyptian exports during the first half of this year.


Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump
Updated 18 September 2021

Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump
  • Lebanese CPI jumped 123 percent in the year to July 2021
  • Food and non-alcoholic beverages prices rose 248 percent

DUBAI: Lebanese residents were forced to pay more than double for consumer goods in July compared with a year earlier as prices soared amid a partial lifting of fuel subsidies and a record plunge in the local currency.

The latest data from Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics shows the consumer price index leaped 123 percent year-on-year last month as officials struggled to contain an economic meltdown the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The biggest contributor to surging prices has been the cost of transportation, which soared by 253 percent from July 2020, reflecting the rise in fuel costs after the previous government priced gasoline at the exchange rate of 3,900 pounds to the dollar in June. Two months later, the central bank began providing fuel importers with dollars at an exchange rate of 8,000 pounds to the dollar.

The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged at 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar since 1997, but is worth a lot less on the black market. Following the resignation of former Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri in July, it plummeted to a record 24,000 per dollar.

This pushed prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages up by 248 percent in the year to July 2021, while health care services rose by 178 percent. Prices at restaurants and hotels grew 246 percent and clothing and footwear prices almost doubled.

The formation of Najib Mikati’s government last week, following a 13-month political vacuum, provided Lebanese with slight reprieve.

The pound stabilized at around 14,000 to the dollar on Thursday amid the new government’s pledges for reforms and a resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which had hit a dead-end following bickering over the size of the banking sector’s losses.

Reforms demanded by the international community include a forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts and a restructuring of the banking sector.

On Thursday, a meeting took place at the Economy Ministry with the president of the syndicate of supermarket owners and the president of the syndicate of food importers to discuss lowering the prices of goods.

The meeting touched on a new pricing mechanism for goods in the wake of the Lebanese pound’s surge, with new economy minister Amine Salam saying that ” both unions have committed to start reducing the prices of commodities.”

“The ministry will not tolerate this issue and will be strict in monitoring price,” he said.


Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3tn sector – Golden Compass CEO

Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3tn sector – Golden Compass CEO
Updated 18 September 2021

Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3tn sector – Golden Compass CEO

Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3tn sector – Golden Compass CEO
  • The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom
  • Alcoa Group, The Mosaic Co. and Barrick Gold have invested in the Kingdom's mining sector

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s new mining law will attract private investment from home and abroad as the Kingdom looks to exploit an estimated $1.3 trillion of potential value in the sector, according to Meshary Al-Ali, founder and CEO of mining consultancy Golden Compass.

In January, the Kingdom moved to capitalize on the vast wealth hidden below ground in Saudi Arabia with the establishment of a mining fund and support for geological surveys and exploration program activities.

The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom, while the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources is investing $3.7 billion in the sector.

The deputy minister of Industry and Mineral Resources Khaled Al-Mudaifer talked up the potential riches beneath the Kingdom’s soil last month, telling CNBC that studies have estimated $1.3 trillion in reserves of phosphates, gold, copper, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals.

Speaking to Arab News, Al-Ali was confident the Kingdom’s enthusiasm for the sector would attract worldwide attention.

“It’s a very flexible and very transparent system, and it’s one of the most powerful in mining around the world,” Al-Ali said. “The system is new and it can encourage investors to come to Saudi Arabia.”

Under Vision 2030, mining is the third pillar of Saudi Arabia’s economic development, after energy and petrochemicals, as it aims to diversify the country’s economy away from dependency on oil.

The Saudi Geological Survey has announced 54 locations for exploration, with more to be revealed in the coming months that will be auctioned to investors.

The National Geological Database is being created to allow investors to find the locations of mineral deposits in a bid to increase the transparency and competitiveness of the sector in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom has already attracted major international investors, including US firm Alcoa Corp., which has a 25.1 percent stake in Ma’aden Bauxite and Alumina Co., and Ma’aden Aluminium Co., as part of $10.8 billion joint venture with Saudi miner Ma’aden, located in Ras Al-Khair Industrial City in the eastern province.

Fertilizer producer The Mosaic Co., another US company, has a 25 percent stake in the $8 billion Ma’aden Wa’ad Al-Shamal Fertilizer Production Complex located in Wa’ad Al-Shamal Minerals Industrial City in the northern province of Saud Arabia.

Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. has a 50 percent stake with Ma’aden in the Jabal Sayid underground copper mine and plant.

“The private sector contribution will be incredible within the next couple of years,” said Al-Ali.

The mining sector is expected to create thousands of jobs in the Kingdom in the coming years with the goal of 256,000 geologists, engineers and others by 2030, he said.

“The ambitions will be reflected in a doubling of the sector’s contribution to GDP,” said Al-Ali.

“The income for the mining sector was above SR96 billion ($26 billion) in 2020 and we are targeting SR176 billion by 2030.”