Generation Start-up: How Dubai's BitOasis is paving the way for crypto trading

The UAE's home-grown cryptocurrency trading platform has aspirations to expand in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, chief executive Ola Doudin says

Ola Doudin, co-founder and chief executive of BitOasis, at her office in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National

Ola Doudin is an accidental entrepreneur who didn’t like corporate culture and its stifling hierarchy.

She decided to take a bet on crypto assets in 2015. Despite all the doom-mongering surrounding the fate of digital tokens at the time, she, along with a co-founder, have managed to build a business that has so far carried out cryptocurrency trades in excess of $4 billion.

The success of BitOasis — which grew from being a side project for Ms Doudin and fellow digital currency enthusiast Daniel Robenek into one of the Middle East and North Africa’s biggest cryptocurrency trading platforms — is the result of sheer dedication and a lot of hard work.

However, there’s no time to rest as the evolution of regulations across jurisdictions is opening up new avenues of growth for the company in the Mena region and beyond, Ms Doudin says.

“I always say that I’m an entrepreneur by accident. I don’t think there was ever a point in my life where I was like, ‘I want to start a business’. That never happened,” she says.

A full-time job in the corporate sector is not what she wanted, a fact she realised when she moved on from her consulting job at Ernst & Young in London after the 2008 global financial crisis and started looking for options back home in Amman, Jordan.

“Whatever full-time jobs I had before, they were just not something I wanted to continue doing,” she says. “I did not enjoy that at all.”

The structure and the hierarchy of the corporate sector was something she realised would not let her flourish.

“I knew what I did not want, but I didn’t know what I wanted,” Ms Doudin says.

Staff working at the BitOasis office in Dubai Design District in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

She soon began working on entrepreneurship initiatives with Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour and started shuttling between Dubai and Amman. It was during her research into start-ups and FinTech ventures on different models of payments when Ms Doudin developed an interest in Bitcoin and the technology behind crypto assets.

The realisation of its disruptive potential and prospects for its growth led her to cryptocurrency enthusiast meetings in Beirut, Amman and Dubai. It was at one of those meetings at Souk Al Bahar in Dubai where she met Mr Robenek, BitOasis’s chief technology officer and the engineering brain behind the platform’s system security.

Mr Robenek dropped out of his doctoral programme to join the venture.

Discussions at those informal meetings were all about accessibility, about how people could buy and sell Bitcoin locally, as there wasn’t a way to do that in the UAE or markets in the region at the time, she says.

“Clearly, people want to buy,” Ms Doudin says and adds that founders were convinced that with technology adoption, there was a “huge use-case for cryptocurrencies and that necessitated a platform to buy, sell and store crypto assets safely”.

“That’s how BitOasis started. It was really a project at that time, a wallet that we developed,” she says. “It was really out of passion rather than ‘I want to be my own boss and start my own business'.”

Launched in 2015, BitOasis has come a long way from being a “minimum viable product” and so has the cryptocurrency market in the Middle East.

The Middle East received $271.7bn worth of cryptocurrency between July 2020 and June 2021, which represents 6.6 per cent of global activity, Chainalysis data show.

The region is one of the fastest-growing cryptocurrency markets in the world. Turkey had the highest transaction volume at $132.4bn during the July 2020 to June 2021 period. The UAE is in third place behind Turkey and Lebanon, with a transaction volume of $25.5bn.

The growth in the regional market is reflected in the rapid ascent of BitOasis. The venture started with a single crypto, Bitcoin. Today, investors can trade more than 40 digital currencies on the platform.

The primary focus remains on retail investors but the company has refined its offerings to serve institutional investors, too.

The trading platform allows investors to buy, sell and swap crypto assets and manage their portfolios.

Being part of a growing crypto ecosystem, BitOasis is simplifying crypto trading. It has tied up with global payments solutions provider Checkout.com to allow users to deposit UAE dirhams and Saudi riyals to their BitOasis accounts using their credit or debit cards.

Nearly half of the more than the $4bn in trades BitOasis has done since its inception were carried out in 2021, making it the most successful year for the venture.

Since the start of this year, BitOasis has added more than 20 tokens to its platform.

“We’ve seen user sign-ups soar on our platform over the past year,” she says and adds that over the past six months, the platform has recorded an average month-on-month growth of 30 per cent in its user base.

“Our user base has grown nearly five times since January 2021. We’re also seeing solid trading activity, especially with new-to-crypto investors entering the market.”

Prospects of further growth are even brighter as in the past 18 months, the level of adoption of crypto assets in the Middle East has surpassed the global average two times over.

“The level of adoption across [the] Mena region is 1,500 per cent in terms of growth and the global average growth is 800 per cent,” Ms Doudin says.

Overall, the Middle East has a young population that is “tech savvy and well connected”, she adds.

Regulators in the region also realise the potential for broader financial inclusion and are investing in developing the technology and instituting frameworks to regulate the sector.

“Across the Gulf, we are seeing it right now and across the Middle East, I think it will be a trickle-down effect,” Ms Doudin says.

Quote
I always say that I’m an entrepreneur by accident. I don’t think there was ever a point in my life where I was like, ‘I want to start a business’
Ola Doudin, chief executive and co-founder of BitOasis

This month, Dubai adopted the first law regulating virtual assets. The Dubai Financial Services Authority, the regulator of the emirate’s financial hub, published its regulatory framework in March to oversee crypto tokens, or cryptocurrencies, for public consultation.

The proposed regulations aim to protect investors and apply to companies interested in marketing, issuing, trading or creating crypto tokens in or from the Dubai International Finance Centre.

The Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Abu Dhabi Global Market, which issued a comprehensive virtual asset framework in 2018, last week published a consultation paper to further strengthen its capital market regulations. The FSRA said proposed amendments are a “transition to Virtual Assets Framework 2.0”.

The number of licensed companies offering virtual asset-related activities has grown in ADGM over the past four year to 11 fully licensed and approved in-principle virtual asset firms. BitOasis received its ADGM financial services permission in 2021.

Ola Doudin, co-founder and chief executive of BitOasis, at her office in Dubai Design District. Pawan Singh / The National

The ever-evolving regulatory regimes and the rapid pace of crypto market expansion is bringing global cryptocurrency trading players to the region.

Earlier this month, Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, secured a virtual asset licence to operate within Dubai’s “test-adapt-scale” virtual asset market model.

The announcement came a day after Binance received the Central Bank of Bahrain’s approval to operate as a cryptoasset service provider in the kingdom.

International exchanges coming to the region is a “validation of our industry and validation of our market and the scale of the market that we are operating at”, Ms Doudin says.

“Overall, more players coming will keep growing the industry … more capital, more talent and it kind of creates more and more density, and that is great.”

BitOasis, she says, is very confident about its position in the market and it will be very hard for others to “replicate” the success of BitOasis brand.

The company, which raised $30 million in series B funding last year, is looking to expand to other markets and is “assessing at what point we should go out and fundraise again”.

“Our aspiration is to continue expanding, even outside the region,” Ms Doudin says.

With offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Amman, Riyadh, Istanbul and the Czech Republic, BitOasis plans to focus on markets in Mena and Pakistan while expanding operations in Turkey over the next two to three years.

Other regions where it plans to expand its footprint in the next five years are Africa and Asia, with a focus on large markets such as India.

“But that all depends on the level of maturity in those markets and how regulations play out,” she says. “For us, focus on emerging markets is important.”

Q&A with Ola Doudin, co-founder and chief executive of BitOasis

What successful start-ups do you wish you had started?

It would have to be something in the FinTech space.

What is your mantra for success?

It's OK to fail. Everyone does. But you should never doubt yourself.

Where do you see BitOasis in the next five years?

I want to see BitOasis becoming a major global player in the crypto space.

What is your entrepreneurial philosophy are you a risk-taker or a cautious businessperson?

I started BitOasis with the belief that crypto can truly change the way we transact, save, invest and think about money. The regional crypto space is buzzing with activity now, but back in 2015, the idea of launching a regional crypto exchange was very new. There was definitely an element of risk to consider, especially since no one could predict what regulation was going to look like in the near future and how that could impact the industry. So yes, overall, you could call me a risk-taker.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching BitOasis?

In an industry like crypto, which moves at an incredible pace, you need to be proactive, learn quickly and adapt to new developments. Even before a regulatory structure was in place, BitOasis meticulously self-regulated to ensure the platform was at par with some of the best cryptoasset exchange platforms in the world. This played a big role in regulators recognising us as an established and trustworthy entity. We’ve also adapted to evolving regulatory frameworks to ensure that we continue to grow, while staying compliant and providing the highest level of consumer protection.

the BitOasis mobile app. Pawan Singh / The National

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: BitOasis

Year started: 2015

Based: UAE

Employees: 150+

Amount raised: $30m

Investors: Jump Capital, Wamda, Alameda Research, Global Founders Capital, Pantera Capital, Digital Currency Group, NXMH

Updated: March 28, 2022, 6:28 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS