The Great Siege monument in Valletta, Malta, which was turned into a temporary shrine for Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: AFP/ Matthew Mirabelli
The Great Siege monument in Valletta, Malta, which was turned into a temporary shrine for Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: AFP/ Matthew Mirabelli

The crypto world has been abuzz this week with the news that Binance, the world’s biggest crypto exchange, is heading to the tiny southern Mediterranean archipelago of Malta.

Binance, which enjoys trade volumes of more than $1.5 billion a day, looks set to move its headquarters out of Asia after feeling regulator pressure first in Shanghai, then in Hong Kong and now in Japan.

“Welcome to #Malta @binance,” prime minister Joseph Muscat merrily tweeted late last week.

And now others seem to be coming too. Crypto-currency Tron also says it will move to the island. Company CEO Justin Sun said he looked forward to building a “blockchain island with the Maltese government.”

And so too crypto-currency exchanges Monaco and BigONE, which both say they soon hope to join this “blockchain paradise.” Apart from crypto, these companies have China in common and all have links – through formation or senior personnel – with the PRC.

Joseph Muscat is now talking of a “blockchain island” and Binance CEO Zhao Changpeng tweeted on Monday that the Maltese “party” has started.

But why Malta?

One obvious reason is that the government announced in January that it was in the process of establishing a “Virtual Currency Act” and a “Digital Innovation Authority” and that both will provide a regulatory framework to allow crypto companies to operate.

The island did something similar with gambling more than 20 years ago and today the Malta Gaming Authority has issued more than 500 MGA licenses to “remote” gaming operators, with the authority admitting it has been especially successful with operators working the world’s numerous unregulated “gray markets.”

It works for Malta because license conditions state they must have the core part of their online operation physically located on the island and they must pay tax in the jurisdiction. It has seen the island become a global hub for online betting and this sector is worth something like $1.5 billion a year, which is a considerable 12% of the island’s GDP. And one day’s worth of trading to Binance.

Gambling, as we all know, can come with a certain amount of baggage, however. An on-going Italian police anti-mafia operation dubbed “Game Over” is claiming organized crime activity is rife in Malta’s gambling industry and say the mafia use the island as a laundromat for tax avoidance and money laundering.

There have been 15 mafia-style assassinations and car bombings on the island in the last decade and the influence of organized crime was only one of the things that brave and hard-working investigative journalist Caruana Galizia was looking into when she was killed.

Her torrent of blog posts, that were hard-hitting, angry but still witty, examined why Malta had become what The Guardian described as an “island mafia state” that was governed “by a political system rife with corruption, businesses seemingly used to launder money or pay bribes, and a criminal justice system that seemed incapable, or unwilling, to take on the controlling minds behind it all.”

Galizia was murdered by a car bomb in October, 2017. “There are crooks everywhere you look,” she wrote in her final blog post, posted on the day she died. “The situation is desperate.”

Surely a coincidence then that a clutch of Asian crypto exchanges, which come from a sector that has been the subject of repeated hacks, arrests, accusations of market manipulations, frauds and thefts, are now heading to this sunny and sleepy Mediterranean idyll?