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What are Exchange Houses and why are they so important in the Middle East?

Exchange houses in an economic powerhouse

Over the last two decades, the Gulf region, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, has cemented its reputation as one of the top business hubs globally where workers can earn more. This monumental stride has led to the influx of foreign nationals into the region for tourism, labor, and entrepreneurship.


Exchange houses have become increasingly popular with the mix of expats in this region who will be looking to send money to their families back home. In fact, data suggests that more money is sent out of the UAE each year than anywhere else in the world apart from the United States. In 2020 a staggering $43 billion USD left the UAE while those in Saudi Arabia transferred $35 billion out of the country in cross-border payments.

In order to meet the needs of this vast payments market, a wide array of financial institutions and fintechs are in the market to help businesses and consumers make cross-border payments.

What are exchange houses?

Exchange houses refer to businesses involved in exchanging different currencies for one or more currencies. Besides this, they also process credit card payments, utility bills payment, and much more.

While offering convenience to a huge fraction of the labor force who might not have bank accounts in the Middle East, exchange houses also drive financial inclusion among citizens of this region, facilitating transactions within and outside the region.

The better exchange rates and swift transactions are part of the reasons why expatriates and citizens are attracted to exchange houses in the Middle East. By offering value-added services encompassing payrolls, travel cards, and more, exchange houses play a vital role in the economy of the Middle East.

Why are exchange houses important in the Middle East?

Currently, exchange houses hold a special place in the Middle East economy, especially in terms of remittances. After regulation by UAE authorities in 2009, the remittance industry ranked ahead of several developed and developing nations.

Exchange houses are considered important due to the following reasons:

  • Economic growth through financial inclusion

As a vast proportion of the workforce in the GCC is made up of low-paid and unskilled work, many often earn less than the threshold required by traditional banks. This group of under-banked or un-banked workers, therefore rely on exchange houses to send money back to their loved ones – their only other option being informal networks such as hawala.

According to Osama Al-Rahma, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Exchange and Remittance Group (FERG), 80% of all remittances from the UAE in 2020 were through exchange houses.

  • Maintaining a vibrant economy during the COVID-19 pandemic 

Exchange houses played essential roles in the Middle East during the Covid-19 pandemic by keeping the ‘remittance gate’ open. These ensured payrolls were actively created, expatriates were able to send money back home and citizens could do business and pay for utilities.

  • Adhering to a clean financial system 

With significant attention being diverted to exchange houses, so has an increased effort to ensure the compliance of finance services the Middle East needs. As of 2020 alone, over 9,000 workers from exchange houses were trained on compliance and other procedures to prevent fraud, money laundering, and drug and terrorist financing.

Current trends in exchange houses

Exchange houses and traditional banks remain the predominant methods of sending money out of the Middle East. But with each passing year, many more people are turning to fintech solutions due to heavy marketing campaigns highlighting their competitive advantages. This has increased pressure on banks and exchange houses to do more to provide a better service to keep their customers.

As technology continues to evolve, exchange houses will have to do the following to keep up with new trends:

  • Promote easy and seamless transactions to foster financial inclusion
  • Present value-added services such as payroll management, currency management, wages and salary administration, and more.
  • Build remittance apps in line with digital transformation and smartphone penetration.
  • Break geographical barriers by offering more corridors where money can be sent.
  • Enhance cross-border payments in an official, safe, and secure manner.

The top exchange houses in the Middle East

Based on certain factors such as average monthly remittance, the number of branches, company age, services offered, recent innovations, and geographical expansions, below are the top 10 exchange houses in the Middle East region as compiled by Forbes:

  1. Al Ansari Exchange 
  2. Lulu Exchange 
  3. BFC Group Holdings 
  4. Al-Fardan Exchange 
  5. Al Mulla International Exchange Co. 
  6. Joy Alukkas Exchange 
  7. Al Rostamani Exchange 
  8. Almuzaini Exchange Company 
  9. Orient Exchange 
  10. Al Ghurair Exchange 
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