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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.