China’s $5 trillion “Belt and Road” presents opportunities for Islamic banks to plug a sizeable funding gap, as the Asian superpower signs up more Muslim-majority nations to its transcontinental economic development scheme.
“The Belt and Road is about supporting infrastructure development and economic growth,” said Adnan Chilwan, chief executive of Dubai Islamic Bank, the UAE’s biggest sharia-compliant lender by assets, during an event in Dubai on Tuesday.
“When you talk about financing such projects, clearly there is a great opportunity for Islamic banking. It is a catalyst for bringing public and private funding together.”
Of the 70-plus countries that have signed up to China’s initiative to improve regional cooperation and link global economic corridors, around 30 have predominantly Muslim populations, including Malaysia and other countries in South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Mr Chilwan added.
“There is a tendency for people in those countries to lean towards Islamic finance, but often [there is] a dearth of liquidity, so Islamic banks in other nations, such as the UAE, can play a major role,” he said.
Belt and Road faces an estimated $49tn funding gap over the period 2015-2030, added Nabil Baydoun, vice-chancellor of academic affairs at the UAE’s Hamdan Mohammed Smart University, during the Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai.
Launched in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road”, the initiative involves China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries located along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe. China is spending around $150 billion per year in the countries that have signed up to the scheme. All of the six GCC nations have signed up.
China is the UAE’s biggest trading partner, with UAE-China bilateral trade crossing $35bn in the first nine months of 2017 and expected to reach $58bn this year, the UAE’s Economy Minister Sultan Al Mansoori said during the three-day state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in July. The two countries are seeking increased economic collaboration.
Islamic banking offers ethical, Sharia-compliant financial products to customers and is enjoying a surge in popularity worldwide. The industry grew by 6 per cent to reach $2.4tn by the end of 2017, according to this year’s Global Islamic Finance Report by UK-based Edbiz Consulting, while global Islamic finance assets are projected to total $3.8tn by 2023, said the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre’s 2018/19 report on Sunday.
Although Malaysia topped the report’s ranking of countries with the most developed Islamic economies, the UAE ranked first in five industry sectors including halal food, halal travel, halal fashion, recreation and pharmaceuticals.
Another study this week, the fourth annual Islamic Banking index by Emirates Islamic Bank, found that 55 per cent of the UAE’s banking consumers have at least one Sharia-compliant financial product – up from 52 per cent in 2017. Over the same period, the penetration rate for conventional banking products in the country has shrunk to 63 per cent, from 69 per cent in 2017.
“The opportunity for Islamic banks lies in improving awareness of the core values and benefits of Islamic banking, while continuing to invest in digital technology to create new solutions,” said Wasim Saifi, EIB’s deputy chief executive of consumer banking and wealth management.
In particular, the adoption of blockchain, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies and other advanced technologies are expected to have a positive impact on the sector, as Islamic banks can achieve greater efficiencies and better serve their customers, summit delegates heard.
“The global Islamic economy is entering its next phase of growth as it embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Majid Saif Al Ghurair, chairman of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Smart Dubai, a UAE government body, and IBM on Tuesday launched the Middle East’s first state-backed blockchain platform, which slashes payment processing times on electricity bills, traffic fines and more.
In the past, IBM faced resistance from clients to its blockchain proposals, but public understanding of the digital ledger system is deepening, IBM’s chief technology officer Anthony Butler told delegates.