Humayan Dar is chief executive officer of BMB Islamic UK, which is owned by Brunei-based BMB Group. An Islamic banking expert and Shar'iah technician, he is trained in both Islamic and conventional economics and a strong advocate of cooperation between Islamic and conventional financial markets.
BMB Islamic was founded in 2007 in London to provide Shar'iah advisory and structuring services. It enlists Shar'iah scholars and Islamic financial consultants to guide investors, lawyers and other investment professionals.
What new developments are taking place in Islamic finance?
There is little in the world of conventional finance that Islamic finance cannot replicate - whether in terms of financial instruments or funds. Sukuk -- similar to bonds -- are of course very well established now, and going forward it will be interesting to see which jurisdiction, whether Malaysia or the Middle East, will evolve as the dominant one for issuance and trading. But even sophisticated fund structures, such as private equity, hedge funds or specialist funds, are being set up so they are Shar'iah-compliant. We, at The BMB Group, have recently formed a private equity joint venture with Emerging Markets Partnership (EMP) to invest in emerging markets. BMB Islamic is also helping an investment bank to set up a Middle East infrastructure.
What about regional cooperation?
On February 18, The BMB Group formed a partnership with the International Zakat Organisation (IZO) to set up and manage a 2 billion Malaysian ringgit Global Zakat and Charity Fund, which will manage zakat (the act of giving alms to the poor) and other charitable funds to alleviate poverty in the 57 states which are members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. It is a long-awaited initiative. There has been inevitably a huge emphasis on Shar'iah-compliance in Islamic banking and finance, but the announcement of a Global Zakat and Charity Fund is the beginning of a new Islamic financial trend, which favours social responsibility and community development.
Will there be a resolution of what seems to be conflicting jurisdictions and centres for Shar'iah interpretation, and also competing centres for Islamic business?
In Malaysia there is strong inherent demand for Islamic products and the country has rapidly developed as a centre for Islamic finance. Perhaps most importantly, the government has provided institutional support, particularly through Bank Negara Malaysia (the central bank) but also through favourable legislation and tax treatment, for Islamic products. Middle Eastern financial houses have recognised this, and hence have entered the Malaysian market either directly or through partnerships and joint ventures. Malaysia is also correctly perceived as a gateway to other Asian markets.
Significantly too, Shar'iah-compliant financial products are now seen as competitive alternatives for non-Islamic people, who will happily buy them if they prefer the returns or their risk profiles compared with conventional products. Islamic finance is in the mainstream in Malaysia and is likely to become so elsewhere in the world -- even Europe. Product standardisation will come through time, not by edict but through a wide acceptance of a particular norm.
What about Indonesia?
Indonesia, with its vast Muslim population obviously has tremendous potential. Once the institutional framework is in place -- and already the government has issued its first sukuk -- then the market should develop quickly. Perhaps the authorities need to be more like Malaysia and be more proactive and encouraging. Islamic finance will expand to countries and regions where there is a friendly regulatory environment, supported by a clear legal framework.
How will this year pan out, and what will be your main role?
This year will be tough, as it will be for all financial markets. However, pressure on government budgets, especially in the Middle East due to the lower oil price, means that some significant sukuk issuance is likely.
But, actually, the current conditions also offer the potential to take advantage of new opportunities and provide new products. With so much uncertainty, investors are seeking alternative havens for their capital, while depressed asset values of all kinds means there is a chance to build portfolios from a reasonable cost base. For instance, Islamic art funds are becoming popular.
An essential role for us is to monitor the Shar'iah-compliance of funds which are advertising and marketing themselves to Islamic customers. Integrity and credibility is all important.