Saudi Arabia’s central bank hires crypto chief to boost digital ambitions

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The Saudi banking regulator recently appointed Mohsen AlZahrani to lead its central bank virtual assets and digital currency program, a sign of the Gulf state’s potential crypto ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has so far taken a more cautious approach on virtual assets, with officials worrying about their speculative nature. Still, the emergence of the neighboring United Arab Emirates as a global crypto hub has created some urgency in Riyadh to draft more formal rules for the asset class, people familiar with the matter said.

AlZahrani, a former chief executive of consulting firm Accenture, reports to Ziad Al Yousef, the Central Bank’s deputy governor for development and technology, the sources said, asking not to be identified as the matter is private. They are part of a team in Riyadh that is engaging with some of the world’s biggest crypto firms on future regulations, they said.

SAMA representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Saudi Arabia is pushing companies to increase their presence in Riyadh as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s plans to turn the capital into a global hub. This posed a direct challenge to the business center of the Gulf, Dubai.

The kingdom is the largest economy in the Middle East, with a relatively affluent population, making it a key market for any business operating in the region. Some of the biggest players in the industry, including Binance Holdings Ltd., have bolstered their Saudi teams, identifying the kingdom as a big untapped market if current restrictions are eased.

In 2018, Riyadh banned banks from processing transactions involving cryptocurrencies, although workarounds exist for trading. In recent months, local financial firms have reiterated restrictions on correspondence with customers, people familiar with the matter said.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has been collaborating with the United Arab Emirates for several years on a possible common digital currency.

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