The UAE Public Prosecution is launching a forum entitled  “Financial Crimes Foresight Forum” on 11th October 2023, to discuss money laundering crimes using Virtual Assets. The event will be organized in anticipation of the upcoming International Summit on Metaverse Governance and Emerging Technology, scheduled to commence early next year in 2024.

The forum aims to study and analyze trends in financial crimes and explore proactive preventive measures based on modern and future global trends. It also seeks to explore the future of financial crimes in all its forms and delve into in-depth research to present them as topics for the upcoming International Summit on Metaverse Governance and Emerging Technology.

The forum presents an opportunity for exchanging experiences and enhancing awareness and commitment to combating various forms of financial crimes, especially those based on virtual assets. Experts will discuss the evolution of financial crimes related to virtual assets to shed light on achieving a balance between technological advancements and financial security guarantees. Moreover, it aims to develop scenarios for future information security challenges in the financial and banking sectors and the cyber risks they may face.

The forum will host a select group of speakers from the UAE Public Prosecution, the Securities and Commodities Authority, the Cyber Security Council, the Executive Office for Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing, the UAE Financial Information Unit, the Dubai Police General Headquarters, the Economic Security Center of Dubai, the Dubai Public Prosecution, and the Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority of Dubai.

According to a recent Baker McKenzie client alert, the UAE Security and Commodities Authority has issued two new regulations pertaining to virtual assets. UAE SCA will be creating a list of accepted virtual assets as well as regulations allowing already regulated financial institutions to offer virtual asset services while amending capitalization requirements for virtual asset exchanges, custodians, and brokers.

These regulations while published in Arabic were translated by Baker Mckenzie in their client  report.

As per the report, the SCA has issued two new decisions,  (26/RM) of 2023 in relation to Virtual Assets Platform Operators (the “SCA VA Exchange Regulations“); and  Decision No. (27/RM) of 2023 amending SCA Chairman of the Board of Director’s Decision No. (13/RM) of 2021 in relation to the SCA Rulebook (the “SCA Rulebook Amendments Regulations“).

The SCA VA Exchange Regulations define VAs as a “digital representation of a value that can be traded or digitally transferred and can be used for investment purposes, and does not include digital representations of fiat currencies, securities, or other funds”.

The SCA VA Exchange Regulations clarify that VA Exchange Platform Operators will be subject to certain provisions of: the SCA Board of Director’s Decision No. (2/R) of 2001 concerning the Regulations as to Trading, Clearing, Settlement, Transfer of Ownership and Custody of Securities, as amended (the “SCA Trading & Settlement Regulations“); and the SCA Rulebook (SCA Chairman of the Board of Director’s Decision No. (13/RM) of 2021).

Samir Safar-Aly, MENA FinTech & AI Lead at the international law firm, Baker McKenzie, told Lara On the Block, “SCA is fulfilling its role as the federal level VASP regulator in the UAE. Following Cabinet Resolution No. 111 of 2022, in addition to being the UAE’s federal-level securities, commodities and capital markets regulator, SCA became the federal VASP regulator. This is a positive step towards making the UAE, as a whole, a jurisdiction with a supportive legal and regulatory framework for Virtual Assets and Crypto-related services. There are significant consumer protection and financial crime related concerns within the Virtual Assets and Crypto sector, and having a regulatory framework to support growth is what many major players in this space are often struggling to find in other jurisdictions.”

Baker Mckenzie  states that the SCA have taken a similar approach to that of the DIFC’s DFSA and the ADGM’s FSRA (both of which have taken a ‘Recognized Crypto Token’ / ‘Accepted Virtual Asset’ approach) in that no VAs may be traded on such platforms unless approved on the SCA’s Official List of Virtual Assets.

UAE Cabinet Resolution 112 outlines that VARA’s decisions shall be consistent with the decisions issued by the SCA.

As for the relationship between SCA and other regulatory authorities, Samir, explains to Lara on the Block, “Under both Cabinet Resolution No. 111 and No. 112 of 2022, the relationship between SCA and other “Local Licensing Authorities” (which only includes VARA at the moment), makes it clear that the SCA would retain sole regulatory remit over “digital securities” and “digital commodities” in Onshore UAE. Separately, UAE Cabinet Resolution 112 outlined the relationship between the SCA and VARA in particular, whereby there will be joint regulatory roles between the two authorities through delegated authorities (granted to the SCA under UAE Cabinet Resolution 111) to VARA accordingly.”

As per Baker McKenzi, the second of the New SCA Regulations, amends certain provisions of the SCA Rulebook in relation to VAs and includes VAs to the list of products that may be dealt or brokered by SCA-regulated financial institutions.

The definition of ‘Brokers’, ‘Dealers of Financial Products’, ‘Financial Consultation’, ‘Portfolio Management’ and ‘Custody’ services, all now extend to and cover VAs, with relevant compliance-related obligations.

Samir explains, “Under the new SCA regulations, existing SCA-regulated financial institutions can extend their activities to Virtual Assets. However, this will need to be in collaboration with discussions with SCA to ensure that adequate systems, controls, expertise and disclosures are in place, including relevant amendments to regulatory business plans and compliance / AML policies”

Finally a new Category 7 License in relation to VASPs has been added to the SCA Rulebook, outlining the following capital requirements, a capitalization of AED 1 million plus six months of operating expenses if the activity is operating a VA Exchange Platform only; a capitalization of AED 2 million if the activity is the Brokerage of VAs; a capitalization of AED 4 million plus six months of operating expenses if the activity is the Custody of VAs; and a capitalization of AED 5 million plus six months of operating expenses if the operator of a VA Exchange Platform provides any other VA service.

As for the future, Samir expressed that both digital Securities and digital Commodities, under Cabinet Resolution No. 111 of 2022 remain in the regulatory purview of SCA in Onshore UAE including the ‘Onshore’ Dubai territory that VARA covers. He expects SCA to issue guidance relevant to such products in the near future.

As for payment tokens, Samir clarifies that this is the regulatory remit of the Central Bank of the UAE (CBUAE). When VARA issued its Rulebooks in February this year, it noticeably did not issue its Payments & Remittances Services Rulebook. He states,” I would expect this to be issued in due course once similar arrangement to those that have taken place between VARA and SCA, take place between VARA and the CBUAE.”

As per a recent PWC Crypto regulation report 2023, the UAE has finalized its crypto regulation, includes AML/ CTF Money laundering and counter terrorist financing rules as well as its travel rule and has already prepared the stablecoin regulation for payments which is awaiting final legislation. ( refer to graph page 8 of report).

For those not familiar with the travel rule, it is a Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) rule [31 CFR 103.33) which requires all financial institutions to pass on certain information to the next financial institution, in certain funds transmittals involving more than one financial institution.

This PwC Global Crypto Regulation 2023 report provides an overview of the crypto regulation landscape, with a focus on financial services. It offers insights into how the regulatory frameworks are developing across the world and seeks to identify how this may impact relevant industry participants and virtual service providers within the financial services sector.

The report notes that UAE authorities are assessing their approach to areas including stablecoins and wider DeFi.

In addition as per the report, the Central Bank of UAE is establishing its position in communicating permissible virtual asset activities to local banks. These include opening accounts for Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs) better known as crypto exchanges. 

 UAE Securities Commodities Authority with its Decision on Crypto Assets Activities Regulation (CAAR), regulates the offering, issuing, listing and trading of crypto assets in onshore UAE. This includes the initial coin offering exchanges, marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms, custodian services and related financial services based upon or leveraging crypto assets.

In December 2022 the UAE Cabinet updates some of its legislations including those pertaining to virtual business and virtual assets allowing them to be regulated onshore.

As for the rest of the GCC and Arab countries, the report notes that Bahrain has implemented crypto regulations and AML/CTF  yet has not implemented neither the travel rule nor stablecoin regulations for payments.

Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman have not initiated a crypto regulation process, while KSA and Qatar have prohibited cryptocurrencies.

It is interesting that while the report for example considers that Oman has not initiated the crypto regulation process, Oman had announced in 2021 that it was launching through the Central Bank a high level Oman cryptocurrency task force to study the economic advantages and disadvantages of authorizing the use of cryptocurrencies in the country.

In January 2022 Oman capital markets Authority announced a tender for specialized companies to assist in setting up a legislative and regulatory framework for virtual assets and licensing supervision and regulations of Virtual assets service providers within the Sultanate of Oman. Since then no other announcements have been made.

Both Bahrain and Oman have allowed crypto payments to be made in the country through virtual asset providers. Oman based, cryptocurrency broker, Easy Coins launched its trial of Tether USDT on the Tron Blockchain. Accordingly Easy Coin users in Oman can now purchase TRC20 USDT. At the end of 2021 there were 43 thousand registered crypto wallet addresses in Oman.

In the meantime even stablecoins are being trialled in Oman. The Oman Water and Waste Water Services Company (OWWSC), member of Nama Group, to trial a stablecoin linked to the Oman Riyal. The company signed an MOU with Oman based Digital Digits, the creators of Easy coins and Connected Chains to trial “ Hasalah” a stablecoin Wallet.

While in Bahrain EazyPay, a payments solution provider partnered with Binance’s Binance Pay to launch a regulated and approved crypto payments service offering in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia crypto traders and investors are growing despite the ban on cryptocurrencies and the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia has created a division to study implementation of virtual assets and CBDCs. In 2022, Qatar announced the introduction of its blockchain blueprint for the country.

So while regulations are essential for the growth of crypto ecosystem, and the UAE is leading in this regards, it doesn’t mean that crypto is not being utilized in other countries regardless of their regulatory status.