Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

Dubai regulator sets up unit to assess digital and financial risk

Exclusive: DFSA intensifying fight against fincrime ahead of review this summer, CEO says

The Dubai Financial Services Authority, headed by CEO Bryan Stirewalt, set up a new unit this year to tackle cyber risks and financial crime. Antonie Robertson/The National.
The Dubai Financial Services Authority, headed by CEO Bryan Stirewalt, set up a new unit this year to tackle cyber risks and financial crime. Antonie Robertson/The National.

Dubai’s financial regulator will establish a dedicated unit to study cyber risks faced by the growing number of companies at the emirate’s financial free zone, its chief executive said.

The Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA), which regulates 500 companies registered at the Dubai International Financial Centre free zone, set up a Technology and Operational Risk team earlier this year, Bryan Stirewalt told The National. It transferred five members of staff from other parts of the regulator, hired a cyber-security specialist and intends to grow the unit over the coming years.

“We’re building out a platform to enable our firms to connect with the UAE government [on cyber-security risks] and increase all parties’ understanding of where vulnerabilities may exist and where attacks may happen, so we have a constant loop of information,” he said.

There were 1.7 billion ransomware attacks detected globally in the first quarter of 2018, of which 2.4 million occurred in the UAE and 3.5 million in total across the GCC, according to Japanese cyber-security and defence company Trend Micro.

For 48 per cent of the Middle East and African companies hit by cyber attacks in 2017, they lost more than $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) in damages, a Cisco study last year said, demonstrating the scale of risk for regional companies.

Mr Stirewalt plans to hire at least one more person this year but expects the unit to grow significantly over the coming decade to be the DFSA’s largest department.

“I don’t say this facetiously but 10 years from now Technology and Operational Risk could be my only team, because the financial industry is adapting and becoming more of a technology industry and that trend will only continue,” he said.

Initially, the unit will aim to support and strengthen the work already being done by the DFSA’s Financial Crime Unit, which was set up several years ago to tackle money laundering, terrorist financing and other types of financial crime but is increasingly requiring specialist digital expertise to beat cyber criminals.

“There’s a constant battle on typologies and new methods of money-laundering capabilities,” Mr Stirewalt said. “Criminals are creative. They don’t rest on the same model all the time so we have to adapt as they adapt.

“A lot of that is just paying attention to what is happening in the market, looking closely at what is being filed as a suspicious activity and making sure firms are prepared to deal with that. Cyber security comes heavily into it.”

The DFSA, along with government authorities and businesses, is preparing for the UAE’s upcoming evaluation by a global anti money-laundering (AML) standards body in June and July. The country will undergo its first assessment in more than a decade by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body set up in 1989 to develop and uphold policies to combat financial crime.

The country received “satisfactory” status in the FATF's last review in 2008. In October, the Dubai government approved changes to the DFSA’s AML laws, followed by a Federal UAE decree on AML that month.

The number of companies registered at DIFC grew by around 20 companies year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018 but remained relatively flat at 500 as of the first quarter of this year, Mr Stirewalt told The National.

He expects the figure to grow marginally in 2019, driven by increasing demand for bank financing amid an uncertain global environment. “Sometimes, when the oil price moves down we have more banking applications, because more companies need to borrow money, so we’re seeing a very strong pipeline of banks and funds.”

But there are plenty of externalities that could impact the financial sector in ways it is hard to predict. “The US-China trade war, populism leading to protectionism, leading to a fight against globalisation, the ramifications of Brexit – all that could have an impact on growth in the DIFC,” he said.

Updated: April 10, 2019 05:08 PM

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