x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

New rules for UAE's currency exchange industry are welcome

The UAE Central Bank's decision to impose tighter rules on currency exchange firms is a move in the right direction.

For most of us, currency exchange comes down to one question: what's the rate? Whether we're picking up foreign cash for a trip or sending a remittance to relatives, money exchange is simple. But all our little transactions add up: because the UAE is an economic hub, and because so many expatriates live here, money movement is a multibillion-dollar industry.

As such, it demands oversight and regulation as much as any other industry - perhaps more, considering the temptations inherent in moving money, both the paper and the electronic kinds.

So it is reassuring to learn, as readers of The National did yesterday, that the UAE Central Bank is taking steps to tighten the rules governing the operation of these businesses.

More than 130 exchange houses operate over 750 outlets across the country; most of these firms have earned good reputations and compete vigorously to offer services, not only simple dirham-to-other-currency swaps but also bill payment, payroll services, remittances, and more.

But there have been some problems. Nine months ago some clients of a company called Asia Exchange began to have trouble: money that client firms paid over to the exchange company to meet payroll was not getting to the employees. Labourers were going unpaid.

There are bigger issues, too. Al Hilal Exchange was one of two Dubai companies singled out last month by the US government for helping Iran's Bank Melli to avoid international sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme. (The other firm was a general trading concern.)

This month the Central Bank revoked the licences of both Al Hilal Exchange and Asia Exchange. But the cases reveal the challenge: to tighten and update the industry's operating rules and standards, last changed in 1992 when technology and services were much less sophisticated.

Now the Central Bank is preparing to raise capital requirements in the industry, and also to impose tighter safeguards against money-laundering, be it political in nature, as with Iran, or simply criminal.

Last week we noted in this space that the Central Bank has over the last two years built up a sturdy, modern framework for the country's stock exchanges. Now in the exchange business, too, the bank is building up a sophisticated, modern regulatory framework, one in which the UAE's financial industries and economy can continue to grow.