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Noor takes the floor.

Summary: Hussain AlQemzi, GCEO of Noor Investment Group and CEO of Noor Islamic Bank, believes that greater cooperation, rather than competition, between the Middle East's Islamic financial institutions is necessary if Islamic finance is to provide a real alternative to the conventional, international banks operating in the region

Speaking at the Middle East Islamic Finance and Investment Conference (MEIFIC), in Dubai, AlQemzi, a seasoned banker with over 26 years of extensive experience working with leading financial institutions in the UAE, said regional Islamic banks do not have the financial punch to challenge their larger competitors from the US, Europe and the Far East.

"If we are to challenge the conventional banks' entrenched position in international financial deals, we must develop the capacity to structure multi-currency and cross border transactions and to build scale," AlQemzi said. "To do that, we need to build deeper relationships between the key markets and between individual banks. Only then, will we be better placed to compete on a global scale.

"I have been asked many times what is it that international banks do well? The answer is simple. They leverage the relationships they have with banks they know well. Why can't Islamic banks do this?

"At Noor, it is a model we have employed successfully in Turkey, where we have worked closely with other banks to lead manage and arrange over $2 billion of capital finance market deals. More than 55 institutions from 15 countries, across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, have participated. If it can be done in Turkey, it can be done anywhere," AlQemzi added.

Addressing delegates to MEIFIC 2012, AlQemzi urged the Islamic finance industry to work together to overcome differences in interpretation of Shari'ah compliance and to develop new and innovative products and services, which would allow Islamic banks to offer a true alternative to conventional banking.

"As we acknowledge our differences in the interpretation of Shari'ah principles, we must also acknowledge that these differences cannot be used as an excuse for our industry not to engage in open and free business,' AlQemzi said.

"The time has come for us to stop focusing on our differences as reasons for not doing business. It is time to talk about how Islamic finance can contribute to long-term inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth not just here, in the Middle East, but in every country across the globe."

AlQemzi told his audience of leading Islamic finance professionals, institutional investors and other senior executives from the financial world, the pace of development of the Islamic finance sector has been too slow and that unless industry practitioners are more willing to challenge the regulators, whether central banks, legal structures or Shari'ah scholars, the internationalisation of Islamic finance would continue to underperform and not reach its full potential.

"I am not saying that it is the regulators that have held us back. The brake on our development has been applied by ourselves," said AlQemzi. "But unless we, the practitioners, are more willing to challenge the regulators we will not create the new, innovative products, based on the core principles and values of Islam, that will entice customers away from conventional banks.

"It is our joint responsibility to sit together to develop these products and structures. It is our duty to leverage our collective expertise in order to push regional boundaries of understanding closer towards each other. It is only when we commit to crossing these boundaries will the regulators be able to do what should essentially be their primary role, to protect customers, to reduce risk and to minimise disruption. All other aspects of the industry are our responsibility," he added.

We Islamic banks should always be thinking of a cooperative model to create the size which will take us global

Later in the week, when he'd had a chance to catch his breath, Islamic Business & Finance visited Hussain AlQemzi at Noor Islamic Bank's headquarters to find out how Noor Islamic Bank is living up to that responsibility.

When Noor was launched, at the height of the boom in 2008, it had ambitions to become the world's first universal Islamic bank - is that still the plan?

It's still the objective... Perhaps we were unlucky to be born in the eye of the storm; however that has also contributed to our resilience. This is our fourth year in operation and fifth since inception and the bank's still going. We recorded our first profitable year in 2011. Things get very tough, we still have that dream and we still pursue the dream. We want to be the Islamic bank with a difference: an Islamic bank that can change the scope of Islamic banking and the way banking is done... We like to think of ourselves as a progressive, modern Islamic bank - the way that Dubai is.

What are your expansion plans now?

We are more cautious than we used to be, but our presence is there: we are in the GCC, we are in Southeast Asia, we are in Turkey, and this to us is global. We also have an office in Tunisia which we use to do business and reach out to surrounding countries such as Libya and Algeria. We can also watch the political situation from there; Libya especially has more potential for Islamic banks, however the turmoil is still there.

What areas are you hoping to expand on this year?

Our natural areas of growth have been structure, debts, fundraising - this is what we do best - 80 per cent of our business is corporate banking. I think this will continue to lead our growth; however we are also nurturing our consumer side which we are hoping will grow to the size we want - it takes a while. But we have been very innovative in that area and we hope that 50 per cent of our business will come from the retail side in the future.

What gaps in the market do you think currently exist in the Islamic financial services industry?

The main gaps that exist are a lack of innovation, and a reliance on ourselves to come to the market with products that are different from the conventional banks. Since the inception of Islamic banks - they were born with challenges - and in their initial phase there was a lot of innovation. However in the last few years we have been a little bit lazy. I think innovation is going to lead the growth and the success.

The second is size: Islamic banks, if they want to play globally they should have size and a good strong network of banks so they can create this size to do global business.

The banking sector in the UAE is a crowded place, and I think the challenge is to be different

Noor Islamic Bank has been quite active in promoting social media: what are the unique benefits of social media to Islamic finance?

It's the next generation. The next generation will not come to bank branches. Social media is very effective, even in the Arab Spring. In some Islamic countries it is replied upon so much by the youth to communicate and exchange ideas. In Noor Islamic Bank we believe this is the way of the future, and we would like our future customers to be able to reach us, talk to us and to reach our services using the same methods. That's why we have invested so much in its development; we have even invented some things that have not been done before; for example the Arabic internet mobile banking, which is the first in the world.

What are the challenges of being an Islamic bank in the UAE?

The banking sector in the UAE is a crowded place, and I think the challenge is to be different. To be different from the way things have been done, and from the standard Islamic banks which started with a model of property and real estate and mortgage finance and evolved into more of a corporate model. I think Islamic banks have an important role. That role is the development of the human being. If Islamic banking wants to play the role that was originally set for it, we have to be in the projects that lead to this development. We have to go to the things that create an economic cycle, such as project finance. I think that's the most important thing that Islamic banks can do.

The UAE has traditionally been an important trading partner of Iran: what opportunities or challenges do you see coming out of the imposed sanctions?

Dubai's trade with the world has exceeded $1 billion; Dubai's trade with Iran is estimated to be $36 million.

This is trade that has existed for hundreds of years. Yes, our economy will impacted because the financial system cannot help in supporting this trade deficit.

Unless we, the practitioners, are more willing to challenge the regulators we will not create the new, innovative products

You mentioned that the Islamic banking scene in the UAE is getting crowded: how does Noor Islamic Bank differentiate itself in the market?

In a very few years we have established ourselves as a very strong brand. We are known; we have capabilities that other banks don't have. I think our major strength is brainpower - we have very good bankers who keep thinking out of the box and coming up with ideas, and I think that's what differentiates us.

Who do you see as your competition; domestic Islamic banks, or the big international banks offering Islamic windows?

I think our competition is the world. We Islamic banks should always be thinking of a cooperative model to create the size which will take us global. That's why I think our main challenge is the world - we have to reach out of our boundaries, out of our regions somehow by collaborating together. The real challenge is to create ourselves as a new ethical model of banking for the future.

How will Noor Islamic Bank achieve growth; organically or through mergers and acquisitions?

Again I would like to say that the crisis has presented us also with opportunities. We have been strong, we have been resilient, and I think the growth of the future for Noor Islamic Bank is differentiating the bank by products, by services that we can provide by excelling in areas where others cannot. Even in our crowded market we have been getting customers and we have been growing. We need to appeal to every customer. Islamic banks exist for the service of customers; if we know how to address this customer, no matter what their religion, we are going to grow as long as that customer is happy.

We are not looking at any consolidation at the moment - we still enjoy large capital with no leverage and we don't see the reason. We would like to grow building our own culture, building more depth into our operations. It may take a long time - Insha'Allah.

Hussain AlQemzi serves as Group Chief Executive Officer of Noor Investment Group and the Chief Executive Officer of Noor Islamic Bank. AlQemzi is a seasoned banker with over 26 years of extensive experience working with the leading financial institutions in the UAE. He has proven expertise in corporate and consumer banking and has led Noor Islamic Bank to sustainable profitability in just four years, despite the global financial crisis, following the bank's launch in 2008. He is recognised as a leading authority on Islamic finance. Prior to joining Noor, he served as the Chief Executive of Sharjah Islamic Bank. He also served as Chief Operating Officer of Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), and is credited with laying the foundations for a world-class financial centre. AlQemzi is a Director of the Emirates Institute for Banking & Financial Studies, Emirates Media, Agility (PWC Logistics Emirates), EMAAR Properties, DIFC/DIFC Islamic Financial Forum and Deira Investment Company.

About Noor Islamic Bank Established in 2008 in Dubai, Noor Islamic Bank is a full service bank delivering the broadest range of products for its customers, with an emphasis on unique and personalised services. Noor Islamic Bank's products and services are governed by a Shari'ah Board, comprising leading Islamic scholars with extensive experience and expertise in legal, financial and banking-related matters. Noor Islamic Bank has locations across the UAE in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Noor Islamic Bank is 50 per cent owned by the Dubai Government and five per cent owned by the UAE Government; the remaining 45 per cent is held by leading high net worth UAE nationals.

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Publication:Islamic Business & Finance
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:May 17, 2012
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