Ola Doudin, the Jordanian founder of the Dubai-based start-up BitOasis, bought her first Bitcoin three years ago.
She was living in Amman, having quit her job in London’s finance industry in the aftermath of the global financial crash.
“I was 23 or 24” when the markets collapsed, she says. At Ernst & Young, where she worked in IT risk and assurance, “a lot of people were being laid off. I couldn’t make sense any more, [of] what I was doing, why I was working”.
She decided to moved back to Jordan just as the Arab Spring uprisings were sweeping the region and soon began working on entrepreneurship initiatives with Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour. It was 2013 when she picked up an issue of Business Insider that covered Bitcoin, and thought: “What is this crazy thing that everyone is talking about? This is something transformative, if it actually works”.
She spent months reading up on the digital currency in scientific journals and on Reddit and connecting with other enthusiasts on Twitter.
In Amman, however, there was no obvious way to get hold of Bitcoins at the time. Individuals around the world were selling directly to others, but Ms Doudin couldn’t find anyone in Jordan, or even in the UAE or Lebanon, to buy from. Finally, a friend connected her to a Canadian cryptocurrency fan, she sent him money via PayPal, and he deposited a Bitcoin into her digital wallet.
“This is amazing,” she says she remembers thinking. “This is the future of money. This is the future of banking, financial services. It changes how we pay online, it changes peer to peer payments, how Swift and Visa could behave. Even our concept of what a currency is.”
Ms Doudin joined Bitcoin meetup groups in Amman and Dubai, and met Daniel Robenek, a Czech software engineer. Together, they hatched a plan for a platform that would allow Middle Eastern users to safely buy and store Bitcoins online.
BitOasis was launched in Dubai in late 2014 and secured seed funding from Wamda Capital and others in 2015. Its wallet service is now available across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, and users in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia can also use the exchange service by wiring money to a BitOasis bank account, to be changed to Bitcoins for a 1 per cent fee.
But why bother to do this? There are a couple of good reasons, Ms Doudin says. A sizeable user base in Egypt and Morocco uses Bitcoin to pay tiny amounts of money on a frequent basis for things like gaming, virtual private networks and cloud services. These payments can be prohibitively expensive via bank transfer or credit card, or completely impossible, but via Bitcoin they can cost only 10 or 20 US cents in fees to miners.
The Gulf’s Filipino community can similarly use Bitcoin to pay bills or top up phone credit for their family back home. Then there are wealthier users in the UAE and Saudi Arabia who want to buy and hold Bitcoin as a way of diversifying their investment portfolio. Bitcoin’s value tends to rise when there are sharp drops in the value of conventional currencies and commodities.
“Bitcoin opens up whole new markets and business models,” Ms Doudin says, comparing its creation to the invention of the worldwide web. “You’d never have had Facebook or WhatsApp if you didn’t have the internet,” she says. “The next Venmos and PayPals are going to be built on Bitcoin.”
A study published by Juniper Research in June 2016 predicted the total value of Bitcoin transactions in 2016 will be three times as big as the total value in 2015.
Pinaki Aich, vice president of group strategy at the Dubai International Financial Centre, acknowledges that there are challenges to widespread Bitcoin adoption. These include a lack of understanding among non-specialists, a lingering association with money laundering and black markets, volatility in price, possible future disruption by newer digital currencies like Ether, and an ecosystem of users, receivers and middlemen that is “still not complete”. A tiny number of Mena businesses currently accept payment in Bitcoin, including The Pizza Guys in Dubai.
“The UAE is a very business-friendly country,” Mr Aich says, and he sees digital currencies in general, and the blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin as “the future of financial services”.
But when it comes to putting regulations in place, here and abroad, he says: “everybody is playing a wait-and-watch game on how this thing evolves.”
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