THE ECONOMIST: Shari’a-compliant banking is fast moving from niche to mainstream, says Christopher Watts. But while continuing growth seems certain, challenges remain.
In January this year when the UAE’s Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA) needed cash to construct a power generation and desalination plant in the town of Hamriyah, it was Islamic finance that provided the answer: The utility raised USD 350 m by issuing its first ever sukuk ? asset-backed bonds that comply with Shari’a, the Islamic legal code that prohibits interest.
By no means is SEWA alone in venturing into the Islamic capital markets. Corporate sukuk issuance leapt from USD 0.4 billion in 2000 to USD 24.5 billion in 2006, according to International Islamic Financial Market (IIFM), an industry association. Growth topped 122% in 2006 alone. “Islamic finance is no longer a niche market,” says David Pace, CFO of Bahrain-based Unicorn Investment Bank (UIB), a Shari’a-compliant house. “It is increasingly a mainstream component of the global banking system.”