Dubai’s Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) announced that while more than 1,000 legacy firms have filed applications to register under Dubai’s unique regulatory framework, underscoring the city’s commitment to fostering a transparent and resilient virtual asset environment, these firms need to complete their applications in ten days, by November 17th 2023.

As per the press release, following the inception of the Authority by Law No. 4 of 2022 and the issuance of VARA regulations in February 2023, Dubai’s Virtual Assets sector, which includes specialist Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs) and traditional businesses involved in Virtual Asset activities, became a part of a regulated sector requiring all such legacy operators in the Emirate of Dubai to obtain licenses or registrations under VARA

Further to substantive outreach efforts facilitated in collaboration with the Department of Economy and Tourism (DET) and the Dubai Free Zone Council (DFZC) through 2023, VARA’s dedicated licensing team have successfully rolled out an accelerated domestic outreach program.

Dubai’s Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) is advancing its engagement with the virtual asset market to evaluate compliance with its set regulations, emphasizing the obligatory licensing for all Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs) in the Emirate. Firms lagging in their application processes have until 17th November 2023 before enforcement mechanisms are due to be triggered by default.

As such VARA is calling on VASPs that have yet to submit the applications, have missed the notifications from their commercial licensing authorities, or have submitted incomplete forms to proactively get in touch, to avoid unintended regulatory consequences.

In recent months VARA has been issuing various market alerts. In its most recent alert it called to attention the media coverage regarding Bitay’s supposed entry into the UAE market, showcasing that unless they have secured approval or regulated by VARA or any other regulatory authority in the UAE. Prior to that it issued a notice with regards to Islamic Coin.

As per VARA, according to Cabinet Resolution No. 111/2022 advises the market to not engage with unregulated VASPs. VARA reaffirmed that Bitay is not regulated by VARA and has not sought to otherwise be registered with VARA.

This latest announcement by VARA comes after the UAE  National Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Financing of Terrorism and Financing of Illegal Organizations Committee (NAMLCFTC), in collaboration with UAE supervisors, has issued guidance on combating the use of unlicensed virtual asset service providers, which is prepared by the supervisory subcommittee.

The guidance, which aims to educate licensed financial institutions (LFIs) and the wider public sector on the risks associated with unlicensed virtual asset service providers, has been issued pursuant to the Decree Federal Law No.20 of 2018 on Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) and Illegal organizations. It aligns with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) publication on updated guidance for a risk-based approach to virtual assets and virtual asset service providers.

The guidance provides the reporting entities, including LFIs, Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Professions (DNFBPs), and Licenced Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs), with a comprehensive roadmap to enhancing their governance and operational processes. It also highlights how to identify and address governance challenges and emerging risks, underlining the importance of compliance with regulatory obligations under AML legislation and the regulations, instructions, guidelines, notices, and rules issued by the Supervisory Authorities.

The guidance directs the reporting entities to consult the FATF Report on Red Flag Indicators of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing regarding Virtual Assets. It specifically requires them to remain vigilant of the various fraudulent methods unlicensed VASPs adopt; continue to manage money laundering, financing of terrorism, and proliferation financing risks effectively; ensure emerging risks are factored into their business and customer risk assessments; and ensure due diligence is conducted to identify instances of forged documents and sanctions evasion.

As per the guidance, VASPs operating in the UAE without a valid license will be subject to civil and criminal penalties, including, but not limited to, financial sanctions against the entity, owners, and senior managers. Furthermore, reporting entities that demonstrate willful blindness in their dealings with unlicensed VASPs and have weak AML/CFT and Counter Proliferation Financing controls may be subject to enforcement action.

Khaled Mohamed Balama, Governor of the CBUAE and Chairman of the NAMLCFTC, said, “The new guidance on combating the use of unlicensed virtual asset service providers comes at a time when virtual assets become more accessible through digital channels. As our digital economy matures, our work on combating all kinds of financial crimes intensifies through raising awareness of their risks and emphasising the importance of compliance with relevant regulations and legislation to ensure the integrity of the UAE’s financial system.”

During DACOM (The Digital Asset Compliance and Market Integrity Summit) hosted by Solidus Labs, a crypto-native market surveillance and risk monitoring hub tailored for digital assets, in Abu Dhabi on May 4th 2023, Dubai’s virtual asset regulator CEO stated that only 50 percent of Dubai’s legacy VASPs (those who were operating before VARA was set up) applying for license at VARA will need to be regulated. He also talked about the opportunity to launch regulation and compliance as a service for small business and entrepreneurs.

Henson Orser, CEO of Dubai’s Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority, VARA, discussing VARA’s licensing journey with strong legal risk compliance, stated, “Currently we have three cohorts that are passing through several processes and routes to being fully licensed, the Minimum Viable product cohort that includes global operators who were with us from day one.  There are also legacy VASPs (Virtual Asset Service Providers), several hundred of them who have been performing virtual asset activities in Dubai before VARA came along. We are in the process of registering them and believe half of them will need regulatory licenses.” He mentions that there are also new applicants who will join the regulatory process going forward.

Orser added, “VARA is offering a nuanced approach to virtual asset regulation that does not need to define a token or coin as a security or commodity to fall into an existing framework but covers any activity in a way that affords investor protection and have compliance in such a way that we hope other global regulators would be comfortable with by design and principle.”

According to Orser, VARA is currently looking at several hundred VASPs within their ecosystem which entails a lot of compliance and risk officers, as well as general counsels and legal advisors. He mentions given the fact that there are many micro businesses and entrepreneurs there is a great opportunity for regulation and compliance as a service offering. As he states, “Regulation and compliance as a service offering will mutualize cost and leverage expertise.” 

Orser believes the most important thing is that VARA is building a hub of global financial services with innovation and technology at the cross roads of the world including within it a strong compliance risk management and legal framework which he says “ VARA will stand out as a foundational principle and will be a thriving fixture of the community.”

As for the future, Orser states that from a regulatory standpoint once there is a steady state on licensing, supervision, and enforcement for the three existing cohorts today, VARA given it is technology agnostic and a promoter of innovation, will launch a regulatory sandbox to have a framework for product development of the future.

He states that the future will include tokenization of real world assets, including real estate, as well as micro financing, royalty rights for creators and publishers, with smart contracts for movies /music, permissioned DeFi (Decentralized Finance), gaming and the metaverse. Here he sees, “A billion users will start to challenge the boundaries of title and value” and finally interoperability, transfers identity and more.

In his final words he believes that many innovators and developers are coming to Dubai because of the growth oriented environment and open minded regulator which encourages compliant operators without sacrificing core principle of investor protection, FATF Compliance and risk. Accordingly he believes, “Blockchain technology is here to stay and its applications will infiltrate more than we can imagine same goes for gaming metaverse and all things Web3.”

The Oman Capital Market Authority has announced that it will  establish the Virtual Assets Regulatory Framework to regulate and develop the market in the Sultanate of Oman.

The Capital Market Authority (CMA), which regulates and develops the Sultanate’s financial markets for the capital market and insurance sectors, is planning to establish the new proposed regulatory framework for Virtual Assets (VA) and Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASP). 

As per the press release, this move highlights the Sultanate’s growing recognition and the CMA’s proactive approach to develop the digital assets and fintech industry in Oman.

This important initiative in Oman was announced during a public stakeholders engagement session held at the CMA recently and being led by the CMA. By regulating and developing the virtual assets industry, the CMA aims to provide an alternative financing and investment platform for issuers and investors, while mitigating the risks associated with this asset class.

The CMA is in the process of defining a comprehensive and facilitative regulatory framework, which will include a new regulation to cover all virtual assets activities, a licensing framework for all VASP categories and a supervisory framework to identify, assess, and mitigate ongoing risks. The aim of this new regulation is to establish a market regime for virtual assets that includes rules to prevent market abuse, including through surveillance and enforcement mechanisms.

The proposed new regulatory framework is envisaged to cover activities such as crypto assets, tokens, crypto exchanges, and initial coin offerings, among others. The regulation for virtual assets in Oman is important, as it will provide a clear and secure framework for the growth of the virtual assets industry. The move towards digitalization and the adoption of virtual assets aligns with the Sultanate’s Vision 2040 of a digitally transformed economy and financial sector, while attracting foreign investments into Oman.

The CMA has also appointed XReg Consulting Limited, an international policy and regulatory consultancy specializing in virtual assets, and Said Al-Shahry and Partners, Advocates & Legal Consultants (SASLO), an Omani law firm, to advise and assist the CMA. This collaboration brings together expertise in policy, law and technology to assist in the creation of a comprehensive regulatory framework for virtual assets in Oman.

Back in  June 2022 Oman Capital Market Authority  issued its new Securities Law (46/2022) which  stipulates that the authority can “Agree to application of technologies, virtual digital investments or any products or services in the areas related to the provisions of this law, as set out in the Regulation.”

Oman was only one of the first countries in the region to allow crypto mining , mining its first Bitcoin in December 2022.    While The Oman Water and Waste Water Services Company ( OWWSC), member of Nama Group, trialed 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.