Bitcoin Slides On Report Russians Seek To Liquidate "Billions In Crypto" In UAE

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by Tyler Durden
Friday, Mar 11, 2022 - 04:29 PM

After briefly rising above $40,000 this morning following the earlier (and now forgotten) report of some soothing words from Putin over the Ukraine conflict, Bitcoin and the broader crypto sector has slumped to session lows...

... following a Reuters report that crypto firms in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are being flooded with requests to "liquidate billions of dollars of virtual currency" as Russians seek a safe haven for their fortunes.

According to the report - which cites company executives and financial sources - some Russians are using cryptocurrency to "invest in real estate" in the UAE, while others want to use firms there to turn their virtual money into hard currency and stash it elsewhere.  One crypto firm has received lots of queries in the past 10 days from Swiss brokers asking to liquidate billions of dollars of bitcoin because their clients are afraid Switzerland will freeze their assets, adding that none of the requests had been for less than $2 billion.

If accurate, that would naturally indicate that the recent Citi report suggesting that Russian crypto purchases had been de minimis was dead wrong, and instead Russians have been busy scooping up cryptos, just not in Rubles but in other currencies, which is why Citi never captured the transactions.

“We’ve had like five or six in the past two weeks. None of them have come off yet – they’ve sort of fallen over at the last minute, which is not rare – but we’ve never had this much interest,” an executive said, adding that his firm normally receives an inquiry for a large transaction once a month.

“We have one guy – I don’t know who he is, but he came through a broker – and they’re like, ‘we want to sell 125,000 bitcoin’. And I’m like, ‘what? That’s $6 billion guys’. And they’re like, ‘yeah, we’re going to send it to a company in Australia’,” the executive said.

Dubai, the Gulf’s financial and business center and a growing crypto hub, has long been a magnet for the world’s ultra-rich and the UAE’s refusal to take sides between Western allies and Moscow has signaled to Russians that their money is safe there.

One real estate broker, whose company has partnered with a cryptocurrency service to help people buy property, said: “We’ve been seeing a lot of Russians and even Belarusians coming to Dubai and bringing whatever they can bring, even in crypto.”

Meanwhile, finding themselves non-grata across most of Europe, a financial source in the UAE told Reuters that Russians are now buying property in Dubai, using crypto as a way of getting their money out of other jurisdictions and into the Gulf state.

Which is also strange considering that cryptocurrency exchanges have said that they are blocking the accounts of Russians sanctioned by the West over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Major exchanges such as Coinbase and Binance say they are taking steps to ensure that crypto is not used as a vehicle to evade sanctions, and that they collaborate with law enforcement on the issue.

Still, European countries such as Germany and Estonia have this week called for tighter oversight to snuff out any loopholes that could allow sanctions busting. Three Western diplomats said they were increasingly alarmed by the number of Russians who in recent weeks were seeking a refuge in the UAE for their fortunes, including in property, and were wary that some could be acting on behalf of those under sanctions.

Two of the diplomats said they were skeptical that the UAE would crack down on Russian wealth in the Gulf state, which they said was predominantly held in Dubai, citing the country’s neutral stance in the conflict. A third said they hoped the UAE, which is also a gold trading hub, understood the implications for its reputation and would take action.

To be sure, the UAE's role in facilitating global money laundering is nothing new, and a decade ago, Dubai emerged as a key pillar for Iran's evasion of western sanctions when the state would allow Iran to trade gold with Turkey, while evading monetary sanctions (see "Turkish gold trade booms to Iran, via Dubai").

Not surprisingly, the UAE was put on a “grey list” this month for increased monitoring by financial crime and money laundering watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The FATF cited risks in certain industries, including real estate agents and precious metals dealers. Dubai adopted a virtual assets law this week and established a regulator. The UAE’s regulator said it was close to issuing regulations and has consulted on money laundering risks in the sector.

The UAE’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters it had no further comment beyond previous statements that the government has a “strong commitment” to working with FATF on areas for improvement in its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing regime.

Countering the argument that bitcoin is the preferred currency of money launderers, Reuters cited experts who said the relative transparency of cryptocurrency transactions, which are recorded on the blockchain ledger that underpins bitcoin and other tokens, makes large-scale sanctions evasion difficult. Furthermore, the U.S. Treasury said on Monday that sanctions-busting using crypto was “not necessarily practicable,” and called for vigilance from companies in the industry.

Two sources familiar with the matter said UAE companies had reputational concerns about doing business with Russians, but felt the state’s abstention at the U.N. Security Council, when Russia vetoed a resolution condemning its invasion of Ukraine, was a signal they should not impose restrictions on Russians.

The UAE, which has deepened ties with Russia over the years, has not matched sanctions imposed by Western nations and its central bank has not issued any guidance regarding the measures. Dubai has long been popular with Russians, who were among the top visitors and purchasers of real estate even before the war and ensuing sanctions threw the Russian economy into turmoil.

Apurv Trivedi of Healy Consultants, which advises on setting up businesses, including crypto companies, said they had definitely been getting more interest from Russian clients.

“They’re basically trying to protect themselves against the inflationary pressures that are happening against the Russian currency. So crypto has been a very good exit for them to manage the risks that they’re facing,” Trivedi said. “It’s a good liquidity provider for them.”

Healy’s Sami Fadlallah said a lot of the money coming from Russia has been moving into Dubai’s real estate, citing both industry talk and their company’s experience.

“People parking their money in dozens of apartments in the Marina, Downtown,” Fadlallah said. “We’ve seen a lot of Russians hedging their bets against the devaluation of the rouble by moving a lot of assets into crypto. And the UAE is relatively loose in terms of its regulation and authorities over transferring crypto here.”

While all of the above may be accurate and is certainly a bearish indicator for crypto prices, at least in the short term, one should probably consider what will happen to crypto prices when China inevitably strikes Taiwan, and all those Chinese deposits comprising the bulk of Chinese bank assets, which at last check were $54 trillion, or more than double those of the US...

... rush to find a safe, offshore haven.