x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai could learn from London to build Islamic finance hub

The Lord Mayor of The City Of London might sound like a character out of a fairytale or pantomime but the position actually exists and has a very serious job to do.

Roger Gifford, the Lord Mayor of The City Of London, says London is becoming increasingly important in the Islamic finance world. Pawan Singh / The National
Roger Gifford, the Lord Mayor of The City Of London, says London is becoming increasingly important in the Islamic finance world. Pawan Singh / The National

The Lord Mayor of The City Of London might sound like a character out of a fairytale or pantomime but the position actually exists and has a very serious job to do.

Alderman Roger Gifford holds the title these days and as such plays the role of ambassador for the United Kingdom's financial-services sector. In that role he spends much time travelling to the UAE with regular meetings in Dubai and in the capital.

This week he was in both emirates with high-level meetings at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Central Bank, the DIFC and Cass Business School among others.

At the top of his agenda was the growing importance of Islamic financial services in both the UK and the Arabian Gulf and how both regions should be doing much more to help this fledgling industry to prosper.

Dubai is aiming to become a global capital of the Islamic economy.

But, while a great deal of Islamic finance business is done in Dubai and the wider UAE, the industry is very much in its infancy and needs to look to partners in other financial centres to help it to develop.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the obvious world leaders in the field and are already working closely with the growing number of Islamic institutions that have set up in the UAE.

But Alderman Gifford was quick to point out that London is also becoming increasingly important in the Islamic finance world and has the added benefit of having been at the centre of global financial trade for centuries.

The position of lord mayor, for example, has existed since 1189, and while financial services was a little more primitive back then, London was still a global financial centre, albeit on a seemingly smaller globe.

Alderman Gifford's pitch was impressive. The UK is the leading western centre for Islamic finance. It holds ninth place worldwide and is Europe's foremost Islamic finance centre with US$19 billion (Dh69.78bn) of reported assets, largely held by HSBC Amanah.

There are 22 banks that offer Islamic products, of which five are fully Sharia-compliant, more than in any other western country. Banks in the city have also issued 37 sukuk raising $20bn, all currently listed on the London Stock Exchange.

But it is not just the city's banks that are important, it is the whole professional services community. There are some 25 law firms in London that specialise in Islamic finance and dozens of other professional services firms that have dedicated Sharia-compliance departments.

Developers in London have even used Sharia-compliant financial products to finance major infrastructure projects such as the iconic Shard of Glass tower and the Chelsea barracks redevelopment.

Meanwhile qualifications in Islamic finance are offered by four professional institutes and at least 10 universities and business schools.

All of this infrastructure exists to service Islamic finance, which is nothing more than a niche product in London which represents less than 1 per cent - a tiny fraction - of the entire market.

So to become a global hub for Islamic finance, Dubai and the wider UAE market need to start building their own infrastructure to at least match what is on offer in London.

Fund managers in the UAE, meanwhile, say much more has to be done in order for Dubai's Islamic finance dream to become reality.

Many of them, particularly those heavily involved in the sukuk market such as Mohieddine Kronfol, the chief investment officer for global sukuk at Franklin Templeton in Dubai, believe a healthy Islamic finance market should be just one part of a healthy financial market.

"Before you have an Islamic financial centre you need a financial centre. Once you have that creating the Islamic portion is easy. Its just another product," he says.

Mr Kronfol and many others like him believe that a regular government bond issuance would go a long way towards this goal, providing the market with the raw material it needs to function properly - liquidity and volume.

If, say once a month, the market could expect the Government to offer different categories of sovereign paper, as is done in other jurisdictions, very quickly a community of primary dealers and market makers would emerge.

Only with a broad and deep debt trading community can an Islamic fiance hub hope to take hold in a market such as this.

Alderman Gifford put it very well: "In financial services one plus one always makes three." So with the federal Government to support it and foreign partners like The City to supply it, the UAE should have a bright future as a financial centre with Sharia finance at its core.

 

jdoran@thenational.ae