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Asia ripe for Islamic finance as fintech comes to the fore

IFSB head sees capacity building and international standards required

Zahid ur Rehman Khokher, acting secretary-general of the Islamic Financial Services Board

KUALA LUMPUR -- The potential for growth of Islamic finance in the Asian market is much bigger than might be expected, said Zahid ur Rehman Khokher, acting secretary-general of the Islamic Financial Services Board, in a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.

Speaking at the organization's headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, he also discussed the developing role of fintech within the sector, and the IFSB's role in setting standards for the application of information technology in Islamic finance.

According to IFSB statistics, global Islamic finance including bank assets stood at an estimated $1,893 billion as of the end of 2016. Asia, excluding Middle Eastern oil producing countries, accounted for about 22% of the total.

But Zahid feels that the region's growing populations provide fertile ground for expansion.

"Islamic finance has enormous potential for growth in the Asian market," he said.

He cited microfinance as a service that could be an area of great strength. "Some of the key Islamic banking markets in the world are in the Asian region, while Islamic capital markets are also flourishing in many countries, with many others actively exploring opportunities in Islamic finance," he said, referring in particular to Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the world's three largest Muslim-majority countries.

He noted the importance of Islamic microfinance in addressing issues of financial inclusion and improving participation in the financial sector, highlighting that "innovations in fintech, such as crowdfunding are also beginning to play a part in Islamic finance."

"The IFSB has been closely monitoring such global developments in fintech" he said, noting that "a fundamental question for standard-setters and regulators is how fintech should be addressed from a regulatory and financial stability perspective, which doesn't hinder the growth of this sector."

With the range of new services that are emerging, Zahid feels that capacity building is the biggest challenge to accelerating development. "There is a shortage of staff with the appropriate level of expertise and knowledge in regulations and product development in Islamic finance," he said. "There is a need for developing human resources and appropriate expertise within central banks, Shariah boards, as well as in commercial financial institutions," he emphasized.

Cross-border transactions have increased on the back of a global expansion of Islamic finance driven by soaring crude oil prices since around 2000. Zahid explained that this has helped oil wealth from the Gulf Cooperation Council -- a group of six oil-producing countries including Saudi Arabia -- and elsewhere in the Middle East to flow into Asia.

"Investors from the GCC and others, including North Africa, have been active buyers of sukuk, or Islamic bonds, issued in Asia," he said. "In 2015, for example, 42% of investors in Hong Kong's sovereign sukuk issuance, were from the GCC. Similarly for a recent Indonesian sovereign sukuk issuance, GCC investors comprised 41%."

Zahid stressed that the IFSB's mandate was to ensure the stability of the Islamic financial services industry, "through the issuance of standards, technical notes and guidance notes. The IFSB has already issued 29 standards, technical notes and guidance notes," he said. "We also conduct training workshops in the form of facilitating the implementation of IFSB standards workshops as well as providing technical assistance and policy advice to member jurisdictions. The IFSB normally plans and organizes nine to 10 workshops every year in various member jurisdictions," he continued.

"Standards issued by the IFSB provide guidance to countries in developing their regulations for the Islamic finance sector. Currently, over 20 regulatory and supervisory authorities of banking, capital market and insurance sectors have already implemented IFSB standards in their jurisdictions."

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