The continued rise of Islamic finance in the UK

Despite the clear political will for the UK to become an Islamic finance hub, there are steep political challenges ahead.

At the ninth annual World Islamic Economic Forum in London on 29 October, David Cameron announced that he wants to see London standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the great global centres of Islamic finance. In saying this, he declared that he intends Britain to become the first non-Muslim state to issue sukuk – Islamic bonds that are structured in such a way as they do not infringe upon Sharia law.

While the issue size is expected to be relatively modest – approximately £200m in the first instance – the announcement should rightfully be seen as a symbol of the square mile’s desire to capture a large share of the growing Islamic finance market. Few would dispute the wisdom of this move, for the growth of Islamic finance since the first sukuk was issued in Malaysia in 2000 has been very impressive.

The global Islamic economy, which includes the Islamic finance industry, is estimated to have a total value of $8 trillion. Sukuk have been used since their inception as a means for corporates and states to raise alternative financing. In light of the global crisis and liquidity squeeze, Islamic finance has grown exponentially. On this basis, it would be strange in a sense for London and other global financial centres not to try to gain some market share and we should expect announcements similar to that of Cameron’s from spokespeople in New York, Frankfurt, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The growth of Islamic finance is attributable to many different factors, but that growth would not have been possible without the development of the contemporary financing techniques or structures that underpin the industry. For this, sukuks today can be seen as a union between religious principles and modern financing techniques. One can understand the appeal of sukuk, particularly in light of the banking crisis that has gripped the Western world and beyond since 2008, for in some senses it can be seen as a more tangible investment than a conventional bond, because the sukuk owner has a stake in the underlying asset rather than a share of debt. So while a conventional bond holder essentially receives interest on a loan, the sukuk holder receives a share of profit derived from the commercial ventures of the business, rather than on interest (interest is strictly forbidden under Sharia law).

However, despite the clear political will for the UK to become an Islamic finance hub, there are undoubtedly challenges lying ahead. An obvious area of weakness is a lack of indigenous expertise in terms of awareness of the range of financial products on offer and the various structures that can be implemented to make finance initiatives Sharia-compliant. Although there are Islamic finance practices operating out of London, there is still a dearth of expertise. Furthermore, regulation standardising practices and giving confidence to borrowers will be required to grow the industry. However, these are not immutable, nor insurmountable, obstacles.

As uncertainty persists in certain parts of the global economy, it has created an opportunity for Islamic finance to continue to flourish and expand into new economies. The UK has put down a marker in aiming to be the first western nation to issue sukuk and such a move is to be welcomed by the markets and legal and financial services. If some of the challenges are removed then watch this space, for it would be a brave individual who discounts the possibility of further growth in this intriguing market. There are currently 50 sukuk listings on the London Stock Exchange – expect many more to come.

Left to right: Hamid Karzai, Hassanal Bolkiah, Najib Razak, David Cameron, King Abdullah II, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and Atifete Jahaga at the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.