Why Islamic finance could be our best “soft” foreign policy tool

With global Islamic investments expected to hit over £1.3 trillion next year, and Islamic finance accounting for only 1 per cent of all global finance the UK Government is right to identify Islamic finance as a key growth area.

I broadly welcomed the announcement from the Prime Minister at the opening of the World Islamic Economic Forum that a new Islamic Index will be created on the London Stock Exchange and that there are real plans afoot for the UK Government to issue a £200m Islamic bond, or sukuk. With global Islamic investments expected to hit over £1.3 trillion next year, the fact that 25 per cent of the world’s population is Muslim and yet with Islamic finance accounting for only 1 per cent of all global finance the UK Government is right to identify Islamic finance as a key growth area.

With growth of over 150 per cent in Islamic finance in the last seven years alone, this is trajectory the UK is right to be grasping. But among all the arguments around increasing the competiveness of London as a financial sector was a wider point missed?

As well as economic competiveness, Islamic finance offers a unique opportunity for broader relationship building between the West and the Islamic world, and in particular the Middle East, which could have important foreign policy outcomes. In an age of fiscal restraint, defence retrenchment and conflict weariness in the West, the PM's announcement offers the chance to build a new type of multi-lateral alliance between regions, driven not by traditional diplomatic tools but by business and global investors, overseen by government.

This new type of alliance is likely to be less constrained by traditional short-term political considerations. Given on-going disagreement with the west over how to respond to issues across the Middle East, Islamic finance offers a new focus around which both politicians and the international business community can rally around. Outstanding political questions remain, particularly around the viability and taxpayer risk of the sukuk which need to be ironed out with strong political will. I urge the UK Government to stick to the task. Political history teaches us that commerce leads to peace and stability.

In addition for the UK, the setting up of London as an Islamic finance centre allows the UK to begin to invest in the region, complementing the last few decades of, particularly Gulf sponsored, investment in the UK. It also enables the UK Government to focus on investing in, and building up, assets which suit the UK’s broader foreign and defence policy in the region such as around security, energy, technology and defence co-operation. The challenge for Islamic finance is to truly compete on an international scale, recognising the need for greater innovation and creativity to distinguish it from conventional banking and enable the sector to solve problems that cannot be addressed by current banking arrangements. In the process, we open up the possibility of a whole new range of bi-lateral and multi-lateral arrangements as well as building much needed understanding between the two regions.

This new economically-driven foreign and defence policy is already occurring through the development of military partnerships between the UK and the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (where UK exports now amount to £17bn per year). A recognition that the Islamic world is a growing economic region as well as a centre of trade and finance as well as an entry point to a whole new set of markets must continue to guide UK foreign policy. And the specific role of Islamic finance should be properly considered as an important tool in this armoury.

Mohammed Al Ardhi is the Vice Chairman of The National Bank of Oman, which is at the heart of Islamic Finance in Oman and received the “Banker of the Year” award from the Banking Magazine for the development of Islamic Finance across the Gulf Region. Al Ardhi is also the former Chief of the Omani Air Force and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Brookings Institute.

Speakers at the World Islamic Economic Forum, which took place in London this week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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