Economy, Investment

Is the future of cash in the Middle East bleak?

In July 2017 the Central Bank of Egypt announced that they would not issue legislation allowing the trading of cryptocurrencies. The result is that Bitcoin and others are not legal money until they are regulated. Earlier in the summer, Bitcoin Egypt had announced it would go live in August 2017. It was, in fact, this announcement made by Bitcoin that promted the response seen above from the Central Bank of Egypt denying it. Currently the actual launch date is yet to be announced, and there will likely be many more hurdles before Bitcoin and others are able to get the regulation they seek. Cryptocurrency is one of many contentious issues affecting the future of cash in the Middle East.

While there are stark differences in terms of economic development between the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Gulf and the countries of North Africa still reeling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2010-2011, there are commonalities. According to Finextra Research, cash is still the preferred method of payment in the Middle East. Most of the region uses smartphones and debit cards, but economic and technological infrastructure is lacking in much of the region. Do a quick Google search on “debit cards in the Middle East” and you will come across endless forums full of would-be travelers asking about the use of debit and credit cards at famous tourist destinations in the region. Unsurprisingly, seasoned tourists recommend they bring the cash and keep the debit card in case they need to use an ATM. While the use of debit cards is on the rise (particularly in the GCC countries), many merchants are not able to handle debit and credit card transactions.

This fact is affecting e-commerce businesses as well. Careem–a ride-sharing competitor of Uber–is currently valued at $1.2 billion and outpaces Uber in the region. One interesting difference: riders can pay in cash. Careem’s success is not felt across sectors. Souq.com, an online shopping platform, was the region’s primary destination for online goods since 2005. In the spring of 2017, Amazon acquired Souq.com in an attempt to expand its reach further into the region after a decline in sales. But much like their earlier venture into e-commerce in the Middle East, a problem remains: how to get customers to pay online?

One idea that has been suggested is the use of Bitcoins, or generally, cryptocurrency. The huge advantage being that a user would not need a bank account, only an internet connection and an e-wallet. With this in mind, it is not surprising that a few Bitcoin companies have emerged in the region. ShuBitcoin touts the benefits, “The Middle East, unfortunately, ranks among the lowest in terms of access to financial services. However it also has one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world, and Bitcoin has the potential to bring financial services to anyone with a phone.” Not only can this be helpful for the average person wishing to make transactions online, it also provides access to international markets for businesses which has been particularly helpful for startups in the Gulf.

Unfortunately cryptocurrencies have been abused and globally there have been many reports that terrorist groups have used Bitcoin transactions to fund their activities, undetected in the secure blockchain records. For governments that have difficulty monitoring financial activity and without strong institutional capacity to handle corruption, Bitcoin poses a problem. If Bitcoin is attractive because one does not need a bank account and because the transactions are secure, governments are more likely to have an issue.

Whatever the issues are for Bitcoin and other e-commerce activities, it cannot be denied that the use of internet for financial transactions is popular in the region. With a large youth population and high internet penetration and mobile phone usage, it is inevitable that the Middle East will become better integrated into trends of digital transactions and commerce.