Beyond the West: Technology and Blockchain in the Middle East — Reflections from the 2018 Blockchain Summit in Morocco

Roya Mahboob told the Blockchain Summit today in Morocco that she created the Digital Citizen Fund in Afghanistan to help build digital literacy for women and girls because they lacked even the most basic access to capital.

“When we first launched Digital Citizen Fund, 95% of women we supported didn’t have a bank account,” said Mahboob during a panel today on blockchain in the Middle East. “So we immediately looked to mobile money, and PayPal. But it didn’t work. That’s how we came onto bitcoin.”

In her home country of Afghanistan, Mahboob said, many people still don’t have basic resources, like electricity and computers. “And if they do, they don’t have the education to utilize it. We want our governments to do more advocacy for this technology,” she said. “In Afghanistan, our people are still trying to figure out what this technology is.”

George Kikvadze, executive vice chairman of the Bitfury Group, agreed on the need for education and advocacy, saying that Bitfury is “betting big on the Middle East.”

“The blockchain phenomena is not a Silicon Valley phenomenon. It’s a global phenomenon,” Kikvadze said. “At the end of the day, the pillar of blockchain is reducing the friction, whether it’s moving money or assets, and friction can be highest in the Middle East and Africa. We think there’s a long-term opportunity to reduce that friction.”

Suna Said, founder of NIMA Capital, said that while she admires the ambitious commitment of countries like the U.A.E. to embrace blockchain technology, her experience in the Middle East suggests that the region will face challenges in achieving those goals in the near future.

“While I was incredibly impressed with how open the society is and how open they are to blockchain and tech in general and how curious they were … we forget how young the country is,” Said said.

Mona Hamdy, co-founder and chief innovation officer with the Al Baydha Development Corporation, said she thinks excitement will grow once local people truly start to invest and take ownership of the innovation.

“We’re in the process,” Hamdy said. “We’re not ready. But for the investment and excitement we have — once they start making the pivot from consuming the innovation to creating our own and applying it to the west, that will be an exciting time for us in terms of developing the region.”

But Hamdy said she is committed to encouraging the growth of blockchain as a way to help eliminate poverty across the Arab world. Blockchain can “raise the floor of what is minimally acceptable for the human condition,” she said.

Tareq Al Memari, Portfolio Manager at Abu Dhabi Pensions Fund, said that economic forces are pushing the “Dubai 2020” initiative in the U.A.E.

“The government is supporting the technology to help avoid hacking, money laundering and theft,” said Al Memari. “I feel the government support believes in it, and they want the global IT companies to come and develop this.”

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