Digital Currencies in the Middle East and Africa 2024 by Richie Santosdiaz for The Fintech Times
Cryptocurrency Digital Assets Fintech Ecosystems Middle East & Africa Spotlight

Exploring Digital Currencies Across the Middle East and Africa in 2024

This month, The Fintech Times is focusing on the world of digital assets. The idea that digital assets are exclusively some form of currency has been slowly dispelled, as new use cases emerge and are rapidly adopted across the globe. But digital currencies are far from irrelevant. 

Cryptocurrencies, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and stablecoins remain prominent and continue to see innovation worldwide; particularly in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Much of the Middle East is focused on enabling a cashless economy, with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 setting a target for its financial sector to achieve 70 per cent of non-cash transactions by 2030 and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) actively promoting digital payments.

The digital currency landscape in the MEA region is diverse, with a vast number of companies offering services to meet a variety of use cases and needs. In The Fintech Times’ Middle East and Africa (MEA) 2024 Report, we look into how crypto and CBDCs are evolving across the region.

MEA digital currencies 2024
Map showing the digital currencies landscape across the Middle East and Africa in 2024
Crypto uptake across the MEA region

Despite an element of unpredictability and volatility, cryptocurrencies continue to enjoy popularity across certain parts of the MEA region. This appeal could be attributed to several factors:

2023 cryptocurrencies Chainalysis MEA digital currencies

– Stability compared to traditional financial institutions

In many countries of the MEA region, traditional financial institutions themselves are plagued by volatility, hyperinflation and currency devaluation.

For citizens of these countries, cryptocurrencies can actually offer an alternative avenue for safeguarding assets during times of economic uncertainty.

– Increased financial inclusion

Cryptocurrencies provide a potential solution for individuals who are marginalised or excluded from traditional financial services and institutions.

By leveraging cryptocurrencies, these individuals gain access to financial tools and services previously unavailable to them.

– Necessity rather than luxury

Unlike in more affluent regions, where cryptocurrency trading is often pursued as a means of generating additional income, in the developing world, cryptocurrencies are sometimes owned as a necessity.

Some people in these regions rely on cryptocurrencies as a practical solution to address financial challenges and circumvent limitations imposed by traditional financial systems.

It’s important to note that the regulation of cryptocurrencies varies widely across the MEA region, with some countries banning or severely restricting their use, such as Nigeria, which has opted to promote its own CBDC, the eNaira.

Central bank digital currencies

CBDC initiatives have garnered interest across both the Middle East and Africa, as evidenced by the CBDC landscape below.

MEA CBDCs map
CBDC overview across the MEA region in 2024

But why are so many countries adopting CBDC initiatives? If implemented correctly, they could offer a number of benefits:

  • Cheaper cross-border payments: Given the size of the MEA region, which encompasses nearly 70 nations, traditional cross-border payments can be costly. CBDCs could offer the potential for more cost-effective international transactions.
  • Financial inclusion: By reducing fees associated with cross-border payments, CBDCs have the potential to make such transactions more accessible to individuals who may have been excluded from traditional financial systems.
  • Faster and more secure transactions: CBDCs have the capability to streamline transaction processes, reducing the time and enhancing the security of cross-border payments.
Notable CBDC efforts

Governments across MEA have launched various government-led CBDC initiatives, making the region one of the most active regarding government-driven CBDC projects globally.

In February 2023, the Central Bank of the UAE launched its Financial Infrastructure Transformation (FIT) Programme to accelerate the digital transformation of its financial services sector. One of nine initiatives making up the programme was its ‘Central Bank Digital Currency Strategy’, which looks to address ‘obstructions’ of domestic and cross-border payments, enhance financial inclusion and drive progress towards a cashless society.

In October 2021, Nigeria became the first country in the MEA region to officially launch a CBDC, driven by many of the same reasons as above. However, despite being a trailblazer in the space, the county’s eNaira, a digital currency pegged to the Nigerian Naira, saw only around 0.5 per cent of its population engage with it.

While Nigeria’s CBDC efforts have gone far from smoothly, this hasn’t discouraged other countries, either across MEA or the rest of the world, from trialling and developing the blockchain-based tech for themselves – a trend expected to continue for years to come.

To find out more about digital currencies, as well as a number of other fintech sub-sectors across the MEA region, read The Fintech Times’ Middle East and Africa 2024 report here.

Author

  • Executive Economic Development Advisor (Emerging Markets) | Contributor

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