There are 112 countries that are — in one way or another — exploring central bank digital currency (CBDC). Of this number, 11 countries have launched their own CBDCs, 15 are piloting, 26 are developing and 46 are researching. This trend appears to have reached the UAE, with the country’s central bank collaborating with various international agencies.

In 2019, the Central Bank of the UAE (CBUAE) piloted a wholesale CBDC project with Saudi Central Bank named of “ABER.” A final report was published in 2020, which showed that “the distributed ledger technology would enable central banks to develop payments systems at both local and cross-border levels.”

More recently, the CBUAE — along with the BIS Innovation Hub Hong Kong Centre and the central banks of Hong Kong, Thailand and China — implemented Project mBridge, a joint initiative experimenting with cross-border payments using a custom-built common platform based on distributed ledger technology (DLT) upon which multiple central banks can issue and exchange their respective central bank digital currencies.

H.E. Khaled Mohamed Balama, governor of the CBUAE, commented on the mBridge successful pilot by saying, “We will continue to establish the right governance framework for interoperable CBDCs to deliver tangible benefits to UAE companies and consumers.”

The CBUAE and its work on the digital currency could mean that a CBDC may be issued in the near future, but how close in the future is still unknown. The launch of a UAE CBDC will depend on various factors, including the ability of CBDCs to resolve issues of privacy, blockchain interoperability as well as economic monetary concerns.

Will the UAE launch a CBDC?

Stanislav Madorski, the senior vice president of blockchain strategy at WadzPay, told Cointelegraph MENA that given the cost and complexity of executing CBDC pilots, he expects the CBUAE would launch a CBDC.

“UAE has been making strides towards developing a cashless society and is in the top 10 in the world for the most cashless societies with ambitions to be fully cashless within this decade.”

Meanwhile, IBM MENA’s Chief Technology Officer, Anthony Butler, an expert on blockchain and digital assets, saw renewed interest in CBDCs in the region over the last few years, and the mBridge project is reflective of this.

This comes as governments worldwide show renewed interest in launching CBDC projects. In December, Pakistan signed two new laws to expedite the launch of its CBDC. Meanwhile, Spain’s central bank has stated its plans to start a wholesale CBDC project and asked financial institutions and tech providers to submit proposals for the initiative.

Challenges to CBDC launch in UAE

Both Butler and Madorski confirm some challenges that await the CBUAE and other central banks globally in their bid to launch CBDCs.

Madorski sees that while CBDCs have advantages because they are issued by central banks, which have a greater influence on monetary policy and can drive regulatory changes, the biggest challenge will be cross-border acceptance. He explains, “Each country’s blockchain might not be compatible with the other, so interoperability is an issue that we at WadzPay are trying to resolve.” 

Meanwhile, Butler sees much friction in launching retail CBDCs (rCBDCs), most notably the technical and economic challenges. He explains that if CBDCs are to replace cash, they would need to have the privacy that cash experiences offer.

“This is not only relevant within the boundaries of a country but also in cross-border payments,” Butler says. “There was a lot of consideration given in the UAE Saudi ABER CBDC design to this particular point because other countries could have visibility into transactions of counterparties.”

He also notes there are obstacles in moving past the “zero bounds” and toward the introduction of negative interest rates.

In addition, Butler emphasizes there are also structural implications of rCBDCs because if the general public has access to central bank money they no longer need to work with the commercial banking sector.

He emphasizes, “If you replace cash with rCBDC, then there are questions of how to ensure the ability to perform offline payments when someone isn’t connected to the network.”

The future is hybrid

It is plausible that the CBUAE could follow suit and issue stablecoins and a CBDC. Butler believes that several countries are exploring the different aspects of CBDC, like retail and stablecoins. He said these assets have been made available by the commercial banking sector. As he explains, “This will mitigate some of the well-known risks facing CBDCs.”

Madorski confirms that central banks, including Hong Kong, are looking at a hybrid model that would include both stablecoins and CBDCs. He states, “The hybrid model is allowing easy digital currency acquisition both locally and abroad, as stablecoins are readily available on many global exchanges. This model is definitely feasible in the UAE.”

UAE could follow in the footsteps of Singapore and launch something similar to Ubin, which is exploring the use of CBDCs for cross-border currency transactions, the Bank of Japan, which is rolling out a pilot program for its CBDC project to three major Japanese banks in spring 2023, or even India.

But out of the central banks experimenting with CBDCs, the People’s Bank of China leads the race. The Bank will expand the rollout of digital wallets for its e-CNY digital currency to several developed provinces by the end of 2022. It has already recorded $13.9 billion in e-CNY digital transactions and 260 million app downloads.

Whatever the use case, the CBUAE appears to be one the most promising countries in the MENA region when it comes to a CBDC launch, followed by Saudi Arabia, which recently hired a virtual assets and CBDC program lead.

While it’s still unclear when this will happen and what type of CBDC will be launched, the UAE inevitably will have to embrace CBDCs in its effort to build its crypto economy.

Saudi Arabia’s Information and Communication technology Commission has launched a blockchain enabled identity tracking management system for Bulk SMS messages in an effort to decrease fraud and enhance trust in Bulk messaging service offerings.

The CITC utilized blockchain technology in both the governance and management of the system. The solution was launched during the Digital Technology Forum 2022 in KSA.

CITC explained that this system will track 34,000 trusted SMS service providers  as well as decrease the operational cost for sending bulk SMS by these service providers by 66 percent. The blockchain enabled system will also  decrease the time needed to process requests by 60 percent. In addition 20,000 governmental and private sector entities will benefit from this system.

The Blockchain enabled digital tracking management system will serve more than 46 million people as well as 25 local SMS service providers. The innovative solution aims to protect users and instill trust in service providers.

Interestingly the KSA Digital technology Forum dedicated a whole day on blockchain technology. The panel discussions included topics such as harnessing the Power of Blockchain for Digital Government with speakers from IBM, CasperLabs, and Oracle.

The forum also saw the participation of blockchain entities from the region including Avanza Innovations based out of UAE which showcased its enterprise blockchain, metaverse and Web3.0 success stories to KSA government and private sector.

Another Blockchain entity IR4ILab based out of KSA also participated at the Forum.

In addition Seamless KSA which will be held during first week of November 2022 will also host blockchain solution providers including DT One.

Not only that but in a press release from Seamless, it states that there will be discussions led by Mohsen Al Zahrani, head of virtual assets and CBDC initiative at Saudi Central Bank, given the accommodating stance that KSA is showing towards blockchain and cryptocurrency solutions.

So has Saudi started its blockchain, and crypto journey, it seems so!

TradeLens, a Blockchain enable supply chain platform has just issued the first bills of lading in UAE for both Safelin Freight and Fortuna in DMCC ( Dubai Multi Commodities Center)

Safeline Freight and Fortuna DMCC  through TradeLens have accessed  digital issuance, transfer, and surrender of original bills of lading using blockchain technology. Combined, the two companies move more than 7,500 containers annually in and out of the UAE.

TradeLens was jointly developed by Maersk and IBM. TradeLens allows an original bill of lading to be digitally issued directly from a carrier and moved electronically through its journey with all the stakeholders. This reduces the hassles of sending physical papers from one stakeholder to the other through a courier process, eliminates the costly possibility of documents getting lost or forged, and removes inefficiencies from manual processes.

Mr. Ahmed Beyi, CEO Safeline Freight, stated, “I was amazed at how easy and fast I can control all my bill of ladings through the TradeLens eBL. Since this is a cloud-based solution, all my consignments and documents are available to my team and me on any device anywhere in the world.” He added, “With the eBL now being accepted by major ocean carriers, ports, customs and a list that keeps growing, life has become easier for freight forwarders and our customers.”

The eBL technology developed by TradeLens provides a solution available to all shippers regardless of size or use case. The elimination of physical hand-off of documentation accelerated during the pandemic, and the modernization of supply chain infrastructure with the use of technology became even more critical. 

The TradeLens ecosystem consists of more than 1000 organizations, including major ocean carriers representing over two-thirds of the global market, and integrated with leading trade finance banks operating in multiple countries with a shared vision to help modernize the trade finance industry. The platform has already tracked more than 55 million container shipments, 4.7 billion events, and more than 25 million published documents.

Varun Kulshreshtha, Regional Head of TradeLens, Maersk West & Central Asia, said, “TradeLens eBL is our latest addition to our portfolio of products in the UAE which also include visibility and document collaboration making the TradeLens platform a very compelling proposition for any company’s journey to digitize the supply chain. The eBL has proven to be very popular with customers and in a few short years should become the default way of managing shipments in our region.”