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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.