London warms to Islamic finance

The land of Adam Smith now teems with a vibrant Islamic banking sector, with even non-Muslims being lured by the model's promise of transparency and stability.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Customer Service: A sales advisor, right, speaks with a client at the Islamic Bank of Britain, shortly after the bank opened in 2004. IBB now has branches across the country.
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Shabaz Bhatti is proud to be a devout Muslim – but his plans to remortgage the family home with one of Britain's new generation of Islamic banks isn't just about religion.

The 30-something driving instructor wants reliability, and believes Britain's growing Islamic finance sector offers this in a way that myriad traditional main street banks no longer do.

"It's simple and straightforward, which is great because ... it seems as though interest rates right now could go ballistic," says Mr. Bhatti, whose parents immigrated to England from Pakistan.

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At a time of almost unprecedented financial volatility, Islamic banks are being hailed as bastions of stability. Growing numbers of individuals and companies are now embracing their workings, which are based on Koranic principles.

Using law changes and generous tax breaks, the British government is now attempting to transform London into the Western world's center for Islamic finance. Conventional banks and financial institutions are also rolling out a range of Islamic finance products.

Globally, the market for Islamic financial services is estimated to have grown more than threefold over the past decade – from around $150 billion in the mid-1990s to $500 billion in 2006.

Keen to tap into this, Britain's authorities are planning to become the first Western government to issue an Islamic bond – called a sukuk – structured to comply with the sharia law principles of Islamic finance, which forbids all forms of interest payments.

Sharia law also prohibits investing in any enterprises involved with alcohol, gambling, tobacco, and pornography – a fact that nicely dovetails with the growing number of Westerners seeking socially responsible investments.

According to a new study by International Financial Services London (IFSL), an independent organization representing Britain's financial services industry, Islamic finance will emerge largely unscathed from the current global crisis, largely because its structures make little or no use of many of the complicated instruments blamed for the current problems in conventional finance, such as derivatives and short-selling.

Although Islamic finance does allow for risk-taking, it does not permit excessive uncertainty, known as gharar. All deals to buy or sell are invalid if the object dealt with is not certain and transparent.

When risks are taken, the Islamic financial model insists they are shared. In retail, this involves the customer and their bank sharing the risk of any investment on agreed terms, and dividing any profits between them. Products revolve around principles such as murabaha, a form of credit enabling customers to make a purchase without having to take out an interest-bearing loan. The bank buys the item and then sells it on to the customer on a deferred basis.

Bhatti, who lives in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon with his wife and young daughter, is currently a customer of Abbey National, a traditional, Western bank. He has had no objection to using conventional Western financial products. However, in the past, the couple were customers of the Bank of Kuwait when they bought a home costing nearly $200,000 in the London district of Croydon.

The Bank of Kuwait valued the house at about $270,000, based on what it was expected to be worth at a later date, and arranged for the family to pay the money back in equal installments over the next 16 years. Now, Bhatti is planning to return to such an arrangement by transferring his conventional mortgage to an Islamic bank.

"With the current economic situation, our plans to go back to Islamic banking are not just about religion, they're a financial decision. It's more secure ... and it's clearer for the future," he says.

More than 26 banks in the UK offer Islamic financial products, including major institutions such as HSBC. Six Islamic banks are wholly compliant with sharia law. A pioneer of Islamic retail banking has been the Islamic Bank of Britain, which has 64,000 account holders and branches in cities including London, Birmingham, and Manchester. The bank recently launched its most competitively priced sharia mortgage to date, offering terms that company executives hope will lure takers beyond its core market of Britain's 2 million working Muslims.

This country's growing Muslim community is helping broaden London's reputation as a financial capital, says Patrick Lamb, an official who joined a British government delegation this week to the World Islamic Banking Conference in Bahrain, where the UK authorities and a range of London-based banks and firms showcased their expertise.

"We have by far the largest concentration of Islamic finance anywhere in Europe," Mr. Lamb says.

Along with home and retail finance, increasing numbers of companies are also turning to Islamic finance to raise money for expansion, ranging from steel manufacturers to luxury gift firms, which are often owned by Muslims or have Muslim shareholders. Money from wealthy Gulf investors has been pouring into Britain in recent years. There is no more potent symbol of this than the skyline of London's financial center, known as The City.

A fund from Kuwait spent more than $600 million recently to buy the Willis Building, one of the tallest in the district, while nearly $3 billion is coming from Qatar to finance the building of what will be Europe's tallest building, a 1,000-foot-tall structure known as the Shard of Glass.

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