Bitcoin Demand Booms in Ukraine And Russia
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Bitcoin Demand Booms in Ukraine And Russia

The cryptocurrency has been trading at a premium against the Ukrainian hryvnia.

By Paul Vigna
Wed, Mar 2, 2022 11:44amGrey Clock 3 min

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven demand for cryptocurrencies in both countries, helping boost the price of bitcoin.

Bitcoin has been trading at a premium against the Ukrainian hryvnia on a number of exchanges, both globally and locally, a sign of high demand. On Binance, the largest exchange in the world, bitcoin was trading for the equivalent of $47,300 in hryvnia terms. On Kuna, the largest exchange in Ukraine, it was at US$46,955, and had traded as high as US$51,240.

In U.S. markets, bitcoin was recently trading at US$43,895, up about 15% since Monday morning, according to data from CoinDesk.

On Binance, there has been a surge in trading volume of bitcoin in exchange for rubles since just before Russia’s invasion began. Between Feb. 20 and 28, about 1,792 bitcoins exchanged hands in the ruble/bitcoin trading pair, compared with only 522 in the nine days before that, according to data on Binance.

Western sanctions have effectively cut Russia off from the global financial network, and Ukraine has imposed strict capital controls.

Crypto is popular in Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine ranked fourth on a global adoption index created by analytics firm Chainalysis. A Russian government report estimates that there were more than 12 million cryptocurrency wallets held by Russian citizens with about 2 trillion rubles, equivalent to about $20 billion.

“The situation in Ukraine has brought to light the value of bitcoin as an alternative monetary network,” said Timo Lehes, the co-founder of trading platform Swarm Markets.

A demand-driven rally specific to bitcoin is a break from its recent pattern, which has been to trade in line with risk assets like tech stocks.

Bitcoin’s rally this week wiped away losses for February. Most other cryptocurrencies were higher as well. Ether was up 8.1%. XRP was up 4.9%. Avalanche was up 9.7% and Cardano was up 7%.

On Tuesday, the tech heavy Nasdaq Composite Index fell 1.2%.

Because bitcoin trades 24-hours a day, in some cases it has been leading risk assets, not just following.

Last Wednesday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine, U.S. equities markets were closed. Bitcoin fell about 6% overnight, then rallied 13%. On Thursday, U.S. stocks closed slightly higher after a day of wild trading.

Bitcoin dropped almost 9% from the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 18, through the evening of Monday, Feb. 21, amid news of the worsening crisis in Ukraine. U.S. stock markets, closed on Monday for a holiday, didn’t get a chance to react to the news until Tuesday. When they did, the major indexes all lost more than 1%.

Attention has also fallen on cryptocurrencies for their potential to be an outlet for Russians trying to get around sanctions. While cryptocurrencies themselves haven’t been part of the sanctions, the White House has been considering adding them.

On Twitter on Sunday morning, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister requested cryptocurrency exchanges block Russian accounts. “It’s crucial to freeze not only the addresses linked to Russian and Belarusian politicians, but also to sabotage ordinary users.”

Ukraine’s Mr. Fedorov didn’t make clear if the request was personal or one on behalf of the government. An attempt to reach him wasn’t successful.

Crypto exchanges largely demurred from enacting any voluntary restrictions in Russia.

Binance said it would not be doing a blanket ban but that it was taking action against those sanctioned by Western countries. Exchanges Coinbase, Kraken and KuCoin also said they wouldn’t be freezing Russian accounts without sanctions or legal requirements to do so.

“We try our best to protect human rights and asset security,” said KuCoin’s Chief Executive Johnny Lyu. “Actions that increase the tension to impact the rights of innocent people should not be encouraged.”

Crypto exchanges regularly comply with court orders and legal requests for data on its users, the same as regulated banks. There was no hint that the Ukrainian government, either alone or in concert, was going to take legal steps to require blocking Russian users.

On the technical side, exchanges have improved their infrastructure over the past several years and would be able to implement these sanctions if required, said Jack McDonald, the chief executive of PolySign, which makes crypto-assets storage software for exchanges and other custodians.

The exchanges have the ability to monitor accounts and transactions, and even know where the deposits are coming from. Funds from known hacks, for example, can and are blacklisted.

“It’s going to prove to be hard for Russia to evade sanctions using bitcoin,” Mr. McDonald said.

Even so, blocked users would still be able to find unregulated exchanges or even more opaque marketplaces for buying and selling their cryptocurrencies.

Part of Western sanctions included cutting Russia off from the Swift network, a bank-owned consortium that handles millions of daily payment instructions.

Western sanctions and restrictions are “bolstering the argument for blockchain products that will compete with the SWIFT network,” said Oanda analyst Edward Moya.

Investors are buying now, he said, in anticipation of an investment wave predicated on building those products.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: March 2, 2022.



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How the Middle East Became the Latest ‘Gold Rush’ in Marketing

The Middle East is set to be the fastest-growing marketing region in the world, driven by momentum in countries such as Saudi Arabia

By MEGAN GRAHAM
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 5 min

Saudi Arabia’s fledgling advertising industry and continued growth in the sector in the United Arab Emirates are helping to make the marketing business in the Middle East the fastest-growing in the world.

Ad spending in the Middle East is projected to increase 8.1% to $6.6 billion this year, up from 3.5% last year, according to advertising research firm WARC.

That expansion is building from a much smaller base than in many other ad markets. The Netherlands alone will generate $6 billion in ad spending in 2024, up about 2.3%, WARC said. But it is also enough to outpace every other region in 2024, the firm said.

“It reminds me almost of the gold rush,” said Reda Raad , chief executive of TBWA\Raad Group, an ad agency based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that is part of the U.S.-based ad holding company Omnicom Group . “I don’t think we’re going to see this type of growth again in our lifetime.” TBWA\Raad has won eight new clients over the past year, with an increase in head count of 17% to accommodate the new work, Raad said.

Some international brands have long maintained a presence in the region. PepsiCo has considered the area a strategic market for decades, said Karim Elfiqi , senior vice president and chief marketing officer at PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Sponsorship deals with local stars such as Mohamed Salah , a soccer player from Egypt, “are a testimony of how over time, we have been part of the cultural fabric of the region,” Elfiqi said.

Other major brands have formed a more recent focus on the Middle East. The Lego Group opened a Middle East and Africa headquarters in Dubai in 2019, citing the size of the region’s young population. That office has developed work such as a Ramadan-themed campaign that ran in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, among other locations.

‘Massive growth’

The Middle East’s ad market has lagged behind regions such as North America and Europe partly because of stricter cultural norms and regulations that affected business, as did a more limited media landscape and economic instability, according to Raad.

But marketing growth in the region is now being driven in part by newfound marketing interest in Saudi Arabia, where ad spending this year is expected to reach $2.1 billion, nearly double its level in 2019, according to WARC. Growth is also coming from the U.A.E., whose ad market is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2024. Smaller contributors include Qatar and Kuwait.

The landscape has changed now because of economic diversification, increased connectivity and a move into the digital world, leading international brands to enter and invest in campaigns tailored to the region, Raad said.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia made up a small proportion of business at Lightblue, a creative experience and tech agency based in Dubai. These days, 40% of its business comes from the country, says co-founder David Balfour , who opened an office in Riyadh last month as a result.

“The conversation used to be, ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai.’ Now, it’s ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai—and in Saudi.’” Balfour said. “We’re seeing massive growth in that region.”

There have been speed bumps. As government spending reaches huge levels , Saudi Arabia experienced a rare economic contraction in 2023.

But the country’s efforts to expand its economic pursuits beyond oil have led to the creation of new brands, which are seeking the help of marketing agencies to get the word out.

Marketers in the region are seeking help to stay on-trend in areas such as generative artificial intelligence and social media, said Greg Paull , principal of R3, a consulting firm that helps match advertisers with agencies.

“U.A.E. has been a magnet for the region for 20 years as more investment has come in—but with the new leadership in Saudi since 2017 [when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince ], this market has gone through remarkable growth,” Paull said.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human-rights record under the crown prince, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, especially over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the more recent jailing of women’s rights activists.

Mohammed has outlasted the international isolation that followed Khashoggi’s killing, however, and continues to pursue an economic diversification plan dubbed Vision 2030. The country last year unveiled plans for a new international airline called Riyadh Air, is investing billions of dollars to build its tourism and videogame industries, and in March hosted a golf tournament in Jeddah under the auspices of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has both challenged the PGA Tour and struck a deal to unify with it.

Changing tides

Vision 2030 also calls women’s empowerment a top social priority and seeks to increase the country’s employment rate of women.

Nada Hakeem , CEO and co-founder of Saudi creative agency Wetheloft, said the perceptions of hardships for women in the marketing and advertising industry are outdated and inaccurate.

“As a Saudi woman who founded my company in 2012, I’ve always felt supported by the creative community and the industry as a whole,” Hakeem said. “While every society may have its challenges, I can confidently say that these challenges have not hindered our growth.”

A progression of new laws, policies and incentives are making the industry in Saudi Arabia more inclusive and supportive for women, she added.

In certain parts of the Middle East, “absolutely, it’s still challenging, but they are making the right strides, and they have the right quotas and ambitions in place,” said Rebecca Bezzina , CEO for the EMEA region at R/GA, an agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.

“They’ve got wealth, they’ve got world-class ambition, world-class budget. They’re not shy of doing things in the right way,” Bezzina added, speaking of the region overall. “But they still have a talent shortage, especially from a creative and design and product point of view. So often what we’ve found our success has been that they’ve come to us and said, ‘Oh, we want a world-class agency to help us launch this new venture or do this new brand.’”

R/GA said it sees 69% more requests for agency work from marketers in the region today than it did five years ago. It recently handled a brand redesign for Banque Saudi Fransi, which wanted to reaffirm its Saudi roots with a modern identity, and created Weyay, the brand for a new digital bank from the National Bank of Kuwait.

The agency hasn’t notably increased its regional workforce, but it has made changes to facilitate working across Europe and the Middle East.

Other Western players are making moves to capture a piece of the growth. Advertising giant WPP has long worked in Saudi Arabia through units such as Ogilvy and GroupM, but in 2021 established a joint venture with a local company to create ICG Saudi Arabia, a communications and media company based in Saudi Arabia. Ad holding company Stagwell opened new offices for its media agency Assembly in Riyadh in 2021 and in Cairo in 2022.

Regional hospitality

Some executives said certain facets of business dealings in the Middle East are different than in other parts of the world.

Bertrand Morin, a group account director for R/GA who is based in London and works often with Middle Eastern clients, said he spends much more time speaking about personal lives and families with those clients than those in the U.K. or U.S. He has been invited to Middle Eastern clients’ homes to join their families for dinner, something that has never happened with clients elsewhere.

But others say it can feel surprisingly familiar.

Balfour, the Lightblue co-founder, said he was struck by the number of ad-agency workers recently having dinner at the Riyadh location of steakhouse chain Beefbar, and the scene’s similarity to far-off locations.

“The staff are from everywhere in the world. The service and the food is unbelievable. There’s a DJ playing,” Balfour said. “Apart from not having alcohol, you could be anywhere in the world.”

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