In a blog post, BitOasis acknowledged that while it has resumed its acceptance of new clients onto the platform as a crypto broker operating under Dubai’s virtual asset regulatory authority (VARA), it is working “towards securing a full virtual asset service provider license under the supervision of VARA”.

In the blog post, BitOasis announced that the crypto broker would resume accepting new registrations retail and institutional customers starting 12 April 2024.  New users would be able to create accounts on the platform and enjoy a safe, secure and convenient way to buy, sell and trade over 60 tokens with multiple currencies, including AED, SAR, and USD.

The blog post adds,” The reopening of our platform to new retail and institutional customers is a testament to our continued dedication to serving our users in full compliance with the applicable regulatory requirements.”

BitOasis had been working since July 2023 to fulfill select conditions associated with its Operational MVP License with respect to serving Institutional and Qualified Retail Investors.

In August 2023, BitOais received an investment from Indian crypto exchange CoinDCX. At the time, Ola Doudin, Co-Founder and CEO of BitOasis said: “We are delighted to be working with CoinDCX, India’s leading crypto platform. The investment will allow us to sharpen our focus on perfecting our existing products and expanding across our markets. We are very excited about the opportunities the funding will unlock for us.”

With VARA granting renewed active operational status to BitOasis, as well as the license to crypto.com, the UAE crypto exchange regulatory landscape is now one of the most competitive in the world.

Kindly note that this article has been updated on April 14th 2024 based on VARA’s website page which noted that BitOasis hasnt received a VASP license but has now become actively operational once again.

Nexo, a crypto and digital assets fintech platform has received initial approval from Dubai’s regulatory authority VARA. Nexo DTC, its UAE entity will be seeking a license for crypto brokerage, crypto lending, borrowing and investment license.

As per the announcement, “Nexo is enthusiastic about the pursuit of new market strategies aligned with the transformative guidance of Dubai’s Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority,” said Kalin Metodiev, co-founder and managing partner at Nexo.

As per the press release, “This IA positions Nexo as one of the first digital asset lending institutions seeking to expand into the pivotal Dubai market. Once licensed, the solution will be available to Nexo clients through the Nexo platform to offer it in compliance with local regulations, accessible via both mobile and web platforms.”

“From the UAE, the global leader for vision, governance, and innovation, Nexo aims to contribute to the regional ecosystem through pioneering lending, brokerage, management, and investment solutions. Nexo is enthusiastic about the pursuit of new market strategies aligned with the transformative guidance of Dubai’s Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority,” said Kalin Metodiev, CFA, Co-founder and Managing Partner at Nexo.

In March 2023, Nexo Co-Founder and MD Antoni Trenchev announced that the UK entity would be opening its offices in the UAE as it expanded into the MENA region.

He noted at the time, that the MENA region will grow to account for 30 percent of its total global operations. NEXO had noted that it would set up under Dubai’s VARA regulations as well as DIFC.

As per comments made by Trenchev 150 people will be recruited. In the article he states, “We are seeking two lines of regulation,” Trenchev said. “One is for the crypto-related activities which will be at VARA, while DIFC will be for more traditional offerings associated with wealth management.

“There appears to be a political will to create a blockchain fintech financial hub in the region but more specifically Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which is always welcoming,” he said.

Universal Digital AEDU and Canadian Aquanow have received MVP ( Minimum Viable Product) provisional license approvals for several virtual asset licenses from Dubai’s Virtual asset regulatory authority (VARA). Universal Digital (AEDU) has applied for advisory license, broker dealer services, virtual asset custodial license, crypto exchange license, crypto lending and borrowing license, as well as management and investment service license.

In addition Canadian headquartered, digital asset platform has also received MVP provisional approval for advisory license, broker dealer license, and management investment service license.

Aquanow is a privately funded, infrastructure and liquidity provider that enables institutional and enterprise use-cases for digital assets. The company currently has 200 institutional clients, serving customers in 30 plus countries with 70 asset pairings.

This is another representation of increased interest in the UAE as a center for virtual assets, blockchain and crypto. 

In March 2022 Dubai announced the launch of the world’s first virtual asset regulatory authority. The authority would be set up to grant blockchain and crypto licenses in Dubai UAE. VARA then announced the first presence of a virtual asset regulatory authority in the metaverse with its headquarters in the Sandbox. Soon afterwards VARA hired the first CEO to head a virtual asset regulator, Mr Henson Orser.

As per the recently published rulebooks the goal of VARA is to promote the Emirate and ultimately the UAE as a safe and progressive jurisdiction worthy of attracting meaningful Virtual Asset growth and innovation, in complement with all related UAE Government programs, and  position VARA and the UAE as globally trusted and respected in the realm of international law.

Henson Orser in an interview with LaraontheBlock clarifies how the first global comprehensive rule book for VASPs and issuance of virtual assets issued by VARA in February 2023 is achieving its aim of becoming a global leading regulatory authority and jurisdiction.

The importance of VARA for UAE’s D33 strategy

Orser believes that VARA not only aims to help develop the virtual asset regulations globally given the enormous demand for regulatory clarity worldwide but is also a part of the broader initiative under D33 (Dubai 33). He explains, “Dubai’s D33 Economic Plan has outlined our mission to establish the Emirate as the capital of the Future Economy. VARA was launched as the world’s only independent and specialist regulator for Virtual Assets to serve as the accelerator for a truly borderless Digital Economy. Our regulatory framework, which is first of its kind, has been structured to accelerate Dubai’s economic agenda and sustainable market growth.

VARA according to Orser assists in achieving the objectives of Dubai 33, a strategy that targets to double the size of Dubai’s economy to $8.7 trillion by 2033 making it top three global cities, because it encourages innovation and technology which will attract individuals and companies to the city.

He adds, “VARA follows Dubai’s footsteps in global innovation, fostering collaboration between public, private and government entities to enable economic independence and create long term value. Dubai’s virtual asset regulations set out a comprehensive framework built on principles of economic sustainability and cross-border financial security. Ultimately, by defining an equitable framework, we help mitigate risk and create space for newcomers and seasoned players alike to innovate responsibly.

Dubai VARA and its relation to UAE Securities and Commodities Authority

On January 14th 2023, the UAE Security and Commodity Authority released its federal regulations on crypto assets. It shed light on the interaction between the jurisdictions of VARA and SCA, by stating that no person may engage in Virtual Asset Activities in the UAE without obtaining a license from “the [SCA] or the Local Licensing Authorities such as VARA.

Questions have arisen as to the roles of both SCA and VARA. Is an SCA licensing enough to operate in Dubai and do entities regulated by VARA are overseen by SCA?

Orser when asked about the relationship with VARA noted that as we are dealing with a globally integrated, and borderless virtual economy. VARA is extremely fortunate to have such strong internal alignment and synchronization of local and federal efforts. He states, “These are absolute must-haves. Reflective of the UAE’s commitment to the new economy and confidence in the Metaverse and Web 3.0 ecosystems, VARA serves as the central authority for this specialized global industry mandated to provide VA oversight across the Emirate of Dubai [except DIFC], fully supported by relevant UAE Regulators and Legal Authorities to create a Global Operating Benchmark.”

He adds, “To this end, Cabinet Resolutions No. (111) and (112) of 2022 have been very effective in providing clarity on how the VA industry standards setting, rules enforcement and market protection responsibilities and authority assigned to VARA for the Emirate of Dubai, will be supported by SCA’s assurance of an agreed acceptable operating baseline across the wider UAE. Similarly, the UAE CB and SCA being the custodians responsible for National FATF compliance – will provide the guidance on Anti-Money Laundering [AML], Combating the Financing of Terrorism [CFT] and such other rules that warrant uncompromised consistency in execution.” 

The importance of compliance to FATF

In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) adopted an Interpretive Note to Recommendation 15 to further clarify how the FATF requirements should apply in relation to Virtual Assets and Virtual Asset Service Providers.

VARA has exhaustively taken the FATF AML/CFT guidelines to heart in its extensive 7 Rulebooks.

Orser explains, “Compliance to FATF and its AML/CFT guidelines are an absolute top tier global principle that we adhere to and aim to set the global standard for. There is no compromising on these guidelines within VARA and so people entering the VARA regime can expect a zero-tolerance for failure environment, here in Dubai..”

VARA Positive stance on crypto staking

Globally, 2023 has seen a lot of news related to cryptocurrency staking service and severe penalties and fines being imposed by regulators where such programs were being undertaken without relevant supervision. In the VARA Rulebooks, staking is a fully regulated activity as VARA feels strongly for the need for full investor disclosure, including marketing and solicitation activities being tailored for specifically qualified audiences.

Further elaborating on VARA’s perspective in permitting VA staking, Henson explained “We strongly believe that so far as a VASP exhibits the right level of responsibility and demonstrates robust transparency, investors must be able to effectively benefit from the offering that is built on permissioned DeFi protocols with proper regulatory guardrails and mandatory disclosures. When it comes to proof of stake versus proof of work tokens, we are also studying many of the interesting developments in protocols, with a strong focus on environmental sustainability.

VARA DeFi Regulatory Sandbox

While the term DeFi is not specifically referenced in the 7 Rulebooks from VARA, DeFi lies very much at the core of Dubai’s Future Economy considerations. 

 Orser explained that VARA’s Rulebooks have focused on facilitating borderless ‘value-exchange’ both in the traditional and new economy contexts, by leveraging a full spectrum of cross-cutting ‘activities’, which should not in any way be construed as TradFi specific. 

He states, “We are well aware that in this sector new technologies and products will be continually emerging, and constructively challenging traditional financial systems. It is exactly for this reason that VARA has been constructed as a technology agnostic and product-neutral framework that allows us to remain progressive and future-focused.  This means that our regime will provide for R&D sandboxes to test, learn and evolve prototypes across DeFis and DAOs today, to wider innovations across Metaverse and Web3.0. As we have maintained, the VARA Regulations will strike a measured balance between remaining agile so we benefit from future waves of technological innovations, yet being definitive in their ability to provide the required market certainty, FATF assurances, and cross-border security which are non-compromisable to us.”

Privacy coins no go at VARA

The rules on privacy coins are pretty simple says Orser. “Rather than going through specific examples of coins that will or will not be prohibited, we think it is important to emphasize how this issue is handled in VARA’s regulations. Our definition of an anonymity-enhanced cryptocurrency states that the prohibition will apply when a VASP has no means of establishing traceability or identifying ownership in relation to that cryptocurrency. If a VASP or a particular token or coin has the right technology or mechanisms to establish traceability or identify ownership, then Virtual Asset activity on that cryptocurrency may be conducted.” 

VARA is therefore focused on preventing financial crime and ensuring that the highest standards are met by VASPs in the areas of anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism.

He concludes, “We hope the above provides you with a better understanding of VARA’s approach to this issue”.

NFTs within VARA regime

While no direct reference was made to the term NFTs [Non-Fungible Tokens] within VARA’s Rulebooks, Orser says that this again refers to the product neutrality of VARA’s rule sets, and what VARA will govern is the activity of issuance which will include NFTs.

He explains, “To the extent that an entity or someone is issuing an NFT, VARA will determine whether the NFT issuance warrants regulation or is substantive enough to be registered under regulatory supervision within VARA. After that the consequent distribution, buying and selling of that NFT are covered in our Exchange, Brokerage and Payment and Remittance Rulebooks.”

Virtual asset mining under VARA

While VARA did not offer a rule book for virtual asset mining activity, in its Rulebook on VASPs it mentions virtual asset mining stating that all VASPs which have investments in Virtual Asset mining or staking businesses or conduct or facilitate Virtual Asset mining or staking activities [including by way of selling equipment] shall make publicly available in a prominent place on their website, up-to-date information related to, the use of renewable and/or waste energy [e.g. hydroelectric energy, flared gas] by the VASP or its Group in the course of conducting Virtual Asset mining or staking activities as well as initiatives relating to decarbonization [e.g. purchase of carbon offsets] and emission reduction of Virtual Asset mining or staking activities.

Orser clarified, “As we have maintained the principle of VARA’s framework is its ‘live’ nature which particularly applies to topics like ESG that are globally evolving, and rapidly maturing around us. We are constantly getting feedback, and suggestions from VASPs as well as other regulators that have subject matter expertise. As such we will on a quarterly basis look to include relevant advancements in some of these globally acceptable principles in order to make the end result truly borderless and interoperable.”

The End of FTX

The FTX debacle set the crypto ecosystem years behind according to experts in the industry. With the launch of VARA and the publication of its rulebooks, will disasters such as FTX happen again?

Orser believes that 2023 will see greater regulation in this industry with a focus on consolidation, international coordination, financial crime compliance and consumer protection in light of the ongoing hyper-volatility surrounding the VA industry.  He noted that, “Dubai has found strong acknowledgment from international peers for its unwavering stance. Most importantly it has been heartening to see that the industry itself is keen on having regulatory oversight, supervisory support and facilitation of responsible actors, and to this end VARA remains committed to working with the industry and peer regulators to ensure that market stability and investor protection remain sacrosanct.”

Note: This is a copyrighted interview any replication of this interview has to be as carried out with exact quotes from CEO of VARA and sourced to LaraontheBlock 

On the LinkedIn page of Henson Orser, it states that he is the CEO (Chief executive Officer) of Dubai’s virtual asset regulatory authority better known as VARA as of January 2023. This comes as VARA reveals its final crypto framework in the next few weeks.  Previously Orser had held the position of President and Acting CEO of Komainu and was the Co Head of Global markets for Japanese digital bank Nomura.

As most know, VARA was created in March 2022 to regulate the virtual assets ecosystem and grant blockchain and crypto licenses in Dubai. A graduate of Princeton University, Orser is VARA’s first CEO.  Orser is well versed on digital assets, and custody solutions given his former role at Komainu. It is noteworthy that Komainu is one of the few Blockchain enabled DeFi custodians with a presence in Dubai that has been granted an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) license. The only other one is HEX Trust.

While VARA’s website has yet to note the new appointment, in an interview with the Block crypto, Orser stated, “VARA is the first purely virtual asset regulatory authority that is gold standard, tier one and even passportable to other jurisdictions.” He also notes it is compliant with the crypto regulation published by the Financial Action Task Force.

VARA is currently preparing for its MVP phase to allow for approved licensees to fulfill the pre-conditions required to operate. This means that MVP licensees are not allowed to provide any regulated services until VARA’s operationalization of the MVP Phase.

Orser clarified to LaraontheBlock, ” The provisional license during the MVP phase allows for firms to get office space and apply for VISAs etc. They won’t be able to commence operations until final rules and licensing.” 

Orser told The Block crypto that finalized rulebooks for crypto firms will be published on VARA’s website “within weeks.”

In December 2022, Laraontheblock wrote about an article on Pinsentmasons legal firm website which discussed Dubai VARA’s Full market product regulatory regime for virtual assets upcoming rollout. The legal expert Tom Bicknell stated in the piece that after VARA’s roll out of its minimum viable product license regime which allowed participants to undertake their activities within an agreed limited scope and specifically to their authorized market segment, VARA would soon be launching its FMP framework which will seek to monitor global trends of the virtual industry and where appropriate issue further rules and guidance

VARA had granted Binance, and FTX MVP licenses, however FTX’s license was later suspended and revoked after its downfall.

Dubai’s Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) was also the first regulator to enter the Metaverse with the establishment of its Metaverse HQ in  ‘The Sandbox’.

As the FTX debacle unfolds and FTX files for bankruptcy, CEO steps down, UAE VARA ( Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority) in Dubai has suspended FTX’s license. FTX MENA users brought in high revenues for FTX as it was considered as the third biggest revenue region for FTX. 

While the crypto markets are in turmoil across the globe, it will also have an effect on the MENA region. FTX MENA CEO Balsam Danhach told Reuters in a previous interview,  “Our license expands to retail customers as well, however, it will be a gradual scale up to ensure that we approach the retail market within the guidelines set by the Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority.”

Danhach also told zawya in a recent interview that their operation in MENA region is the second to third region in terms of global revenue performance. At the time FTX had 6 million users with a trading volume of $12 billion per day.

He stated in his interview with Zawya, talking about MENA and the importance of their license in UAE, “We are not talking about a region contributing a small percentage to our revenues but a region which is among our top three in terms of revenues. Here there are higher volumes per user.”

While FTX officially launched in UAE on October 31st 2022, its CEO had commented that from July 2022 until October FTX was testing backend migration of their existing user base from MENA onto their FTX MENA platform. FTX was offering the same access to all the services offered globally through the local FTX page. He stated at the time, “We are working on trading in UAE dirhams and accessing local banks.”

FTX MENA replying to a post on LinkedIn stated that they had not actually commenced operations locally. ” FTX MENA would like to clarify that the announcement of receiving its MVP License indicates that we are only able to commence readiness measures. Rigorous pre-conditions set by VARA have to be met by FTX MENA before undertaking any active market operations in the UAE. FTX MENA confirms that we are still in the readiness preparation phase and have hence not onboarded any clients nor engaged in any active operations locally as we have not received VARA approval to do so.” 

FTX Exchange, was the first Virtual Asset Service Provider (#VASP) to receive the MVP license to operate its virtual asset (VA) exchange and clearing house services from Dubai’s Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA).

Given the comments made by FTX MENA CEO,  it seems that there will be an effect on a number of crypto traders in the region. What could be worrisome is how will this play into the crypto growth in the region, and UAE’s stance on crypto and crypto regulation.

Binance, crypto exchange has received its Minimal Viable Product (MVP) license from Dubai’s Virtual Asset Regulatory Authority (VARA). Local bank clients approved by VARA will be able to utilize the Binance platform. Users will benefit from higher consumer protection levels because Binance is now a fully regulated platform in Dubai.

Binance is now able to open a client money account with a UAE local bank and provide services to qualified customers. Services include, virtual asset exchange services, conversion between virtual assets and fiat currencies, transfer of virtual assets, custody and management of virtual assets, virtual token offering and trading services and virtual assets payments and remittance services

His Excellency Helal Saeed Almarri, Chairman of VARA said, “We are pleased to have Binance licensed to operate within the VARA MVP Programme. The VARA regime aims to strike an effective balance between value creation and risk mitigation, enabling open market innovation while assuring protection for the economically vulnerable. The MVP Phase, is designed for select global players across the value chain, that are committed to responsible industry participation and VARA looks forward to Binance being an active contributor, reinforcing Dubai’s commitment towards creating a next-gen secure ecosystem for this future economy.”

Changpeng Zhao (CZ), founder and CEO of Binance, commented: “At Binance we welcome regulations that are globally consistent, enable responsible innovation, protect users, and give them choice. VARA’s unique operating model is setting a benchmark for the global industry, and this most recent registration is an acknowledgement of our compliance and safety processes in the new regulatory framework.  We strongly believe there is a significant opportunity to work with our industry peers to develop consistent implementation standards around the world as we have been doing in Dubai.”

Alexander Chehade, Binance Dubai General Manager, noted: “Our registration in Dubai is a reflection of the country’s progressive stance on blockchain technology and its willingness to embrace this sector through collaboration. We look forward to continued partnership as we build upon our team and operations in Dubai to roll out additional services including local banking capabilities and enhanced products.”

VARA has made public all the entities that are currently licensed under its authority. The entities fall under various categories including crypto exchanges, DeFi custodians, DeFi asset managers, DeFi service providers, and DLT platforms.

 As per VARA website in terms of native crypto exchanges, 13 crypto asset exchanges hold licenses. They include both international and regional players such as Binance, BitOasis, ByBit, CoinMENA, CoinMetro, Crypto.com, FTX (fully regulated with MVP license), GCEX Huobi, Midchains, Rain and OKx.

In terms of DeFi custodians, VARA has registered Hex Trust, Komainu, Monstera and ZampFi Labs . Hex Trust as one example is a fully-licensed and insured provider of bank-grade custody for digital assets. Through their proprietary platform Hex Safe™, they deliver custody, DeFi, brokerage, and financing solutions for financial institutions, digital asset organizations, corporate and private clients.

While ZampFi, is founded by: Amit Jain who was previously the Managing Director at Sequoia Capital. ZampFi is a digital banking entity.

VARA is also offering regulated licenses for DeFi asset managers. Names on the roster include Brevan Howard, Fintonia, Galaxy Digital, Nine Blocks and Noia Capital.

Bravan Howard asset management firm on Dubai VARA’s list has recently pulled off the largest crypto hedge fund launch as per the Block media. The firm’s flagship digital assets focused vehicle raised more than $1 billion from institutional investors, according to four sources with knowledge of the matter.

Brevan Howard Digital Asset Multi-Strategy Fund lost a scant 4% to 5% from inception through the end of June 2022, according to the source, even as the one-two punch of the implosion of Terra stablecoin UST and the insolvency of crypto lenders, such as Celsius and Voyager, locked price action and liquidity into respective death spirals.  “Their returns, relative to the market, are unbelievable,” another source adds.

Their strategies, including quantitative trades and relative-value plays, are implemented by teams of portfolio managers structured in so-called “pods” that feature supporting analysts and engineers. The division, additionally, now has more than 20 external blockchain engineers working under full-time retainers.

The global-macro-focused Brevan runs about $23 billion overall across a wide range of asset classes.

Brevan Howard Digital Asset Multi-Strategy Fund remains open to external capital, pursuant to a minimum check of $5 million. Its limited partners include a number of the world’s largest and most sophisticated hedge fund investors, including entities that have historically exclusively backed traditional financiers.

As for Fintonia, its Group founder Adrian Chng stated, “Dubai is making significant strides towards establishing itself as a virtual assets hub and creating a conducive environment for the industry’s growth. The virtual asset licence marks an important milestone in our aspiration to have a presence in every region where there are inn

As for Fintonia, its Group founder Adrian Chng stated, “Dubai is making significant strides towards establishing itself as a virtual assets hub and creating a conducive environment for the industry’s growth. The virtual asset licence marks an important milestone in our aspiration to have a presence in every region where there are innovative Web3 and crypto companies, enabling us to connect and collaborate with members of the crypto native ecosystem and the traditional financial services industry.”

Recently added is Nine Blocks Capital Management which was launched by PwC’s former global crypto head Henri Arslanian. Nine Capital has launched a $75m crypto hedge fund focused on institutional investors with the aim of becoming the world’s leading institutional grade crypto asset management firm as per a statement from the fund on launch.

The new fund is backed by $75m from Hong Kong-based hedge fund Nine Masts Capital Management, with additional investments from other partners.

Noia Capital has also joined the roster and is a Luxembourg based actively managed alternative asset manager pursuing excellence in digital assets and blockchain technology investments. As per the website the company is registered with CSSF and FSMA.

In terms of DeFi service providers the list includes Amber Group, Equiti, ScallopX, and TPS Capital.

VARA has also offered licenses to DLT platforms that include names such as Calvin Cheng Web3.0 Holdings, Mcontent, Polygon, and Woonkly Labs.

Finally in terms of DeFi services VARA has the following registered entities, BRE Holdings, Eros Investments, Hike, and Prypto.

VARA has yet to license NFT marketplace entities, crypto mining entities, and security token platforms.