O well, so here I was: in the “hub” of the Middle East attending yet another conference. Dubai is by far the most modern, extremely progressive, and arguably the safest city in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – I dare say this with a risk of scorn from my Middle Eastern friends, quite a few of them being real “heavyweights”. Fact remains, that for good or for bad; with debt or with cash; with religion or without it; Dubai has managed to become a city par excellence. This is “the” place in the GCC - with a world class infrastructure and a business friendly environment.
In the backdrop of Dubai’s positioning as a vibrant, cosmopolitan, business friendly city, it would only make sense to extend the vision of its progress to Islamic Finance. If David Cameron could envision London as an Islamic Finance hub, Sheikh Mohammed had every reason to believe he could build Dubai’s credentials in that landscape as well. The Global Islamic Economic Summit (Dubai) this month was a practical manifestation of the Shaikh’s dream.
The conference surpassed my expectations in pomp, show and panache. It was quite a spectacle to see more than 3,000 delegates from 80 odd countries grace the occasion with their noteworthy presence. Whilst it is quite improbable to provide a crisp synopsis of the conference (twitter feeds would have made everyone aware of what was actually said in each forum anyways). I would try and provide a brief view from my standpoint: the view of an Islamic Finance aficionado, someone, who is also a bit cynical of this discipline (as it has hitherto been practiced).
What I found atypical and admirable was the “holistic” view of the Islamic Economic ecosystem – a system that is not restricted to Islamic Financial Institutions (Islamic Banking, Insurance, and Finance) but an Economy which encompasses and essentially enables a healthy existence of the “Halal food sector”, “Halal media and entertainment”, “Halal travel”, “Charitable Trusts” et al. This linkage has been noticeably missing from previous international events and it was an admirable “first” by team Dubai - my kudos to them.
Ironically, the above linkages demanded more interactivity, higher audience engagement, and perhaps a better packaging of the themed discussions. Unfortunately, the conference suffered from “organizer ennui”: trying to package a plethora of themes in one go and being overly exhaustive at the risk of missing the concept behind the exercise. To be fair to organizers, perhaps the enthusiasm for Dubai to lead this whole “Islamic Economy” paradigm took precedence and the conference success / agenda focused on having every possible “cool” Islamic Economy oriented theme neatly packaged in the event. The result: too many sessions, too little time! I wanted to ask questions but was constrained by the clock, as the moderators were busy time keeping, thereby killing quintessential audience interactivity. Bear in mind that the Islamic Economy is not hostage to the supply side - quite the opposite. Its ethos and ideals are essentially demand driven (for the most part): the mom and pop shop will demand an ethically compatible loan; the student will desire for “Qard Hassan” (interest free or preferential rate loan); the "halal food packager" would yearn for an Islamic Facility when there is none being offered. Therefore, the discussions should have been structured in a manner enabling greater audience engagement, and providing for more Q&A time. This would have been possible by truncating some agenda items, thus providing more time for substantive dialogue in each session.
The breakout (parallel) sessions were the same - too many good themes at the same time. I was constrained to my solitary choice and that too, remained “question free”.
Personally speaking, among the standout sessions remained the CEO debate, which tackled the subject of Islamic Finance and “Maqasid-e-Sharia” (ideals of Islamic Sharia’) and the session on Halal Media. I wish to have attended other breakouts, but there were many good ones I had to ignore due to time and my serious lack of omnipresence. I do not quite know how effective audience polls actually are, in determining industry branding but a majority of participants voted for “status quo”:i.e. Islamic Finance to be labeled as it is currently, and not to change its nomenclature in any other way. More power to my hardcore Islamic Finance fans! Bear in mind though that a majority of the event audience would either be Muslims, industry related personnel or non-Muslims voting in a country with Islamic faith as its guiding principle - thus, a natural bias towards Islamic-Arabic nomenclature and the status-quo. Others would, in most likelihood be new to Islamic Finance (or to the Islamic Faith). Add to that the “recency” effect of a London Islamic Finance Conference, and all you get is an audience which may not be totally cognizant of alternate names. Bear in mind that the developed World is cozying up to the Islamic Economy paradigm, not for the love of God, but to attract favorable demographics, higher per capita spend, and of course Arab wealth. Why change the name to anything else then?
Whilst I had high expectations from Roubini’s session, they were, once again, dashed by the degree of interactivity (the lack thereof); the persona of the anchor person (found him quite dour); and of course, the lack of time whereby the anchor and the expert thinker failed to raise the bar of the discussion to package it around Islamic Economy and conventional paradigms. It would have been nice to have Roubini’s substantive input on Islamic Economics. However, the anchor failed to energize and invigorate the discussion and missed the link with Ethical Finance. To be fair to the anchor, maybe the presence of a Nobel Laureate took its toll, who knows.
I could not ignore the overwhelming awards being given to Dubai linked entities. Was there a conscious effort to bring in Dubai as a Global Capital by an inherently “Local only” focus? Defeats the purpose of the holistic/ global Economics paradigm totally, doesn’t it? Why were the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Central Bank of Malaysia all ignored for their services? Except the Islamic Development Bank, which is essentially a global (multilateral) institution, where were the non-Dubai, non-UAE institutions and their point of view(s)? Where were the Sharia' scholars to defend themselves in front of an increasingly skeptical public? Food for thought perhaps for the next conference!
For me, the most fulfilling session was the one around “Halal Lifestyle” where we had a superlative expert panel debating the control versus freedom ideology and redefining benchmarks of success in present media. I may be guilty of bias toward the media session: I am an avid twitter user, a blogger who expresses his opinions aloud (like here). I highly value Shahed Amanullah for the wonder called Zabihah. com – I pray for him each time I go to a city like Madrid, and am able to seamlessly find a Halal restaurant to eat, or a Masjid to pray to fulfill the demands of my physical-spiritual self. I am also a huge fan of Ahmed Nassaf, who has done wonders by enabling Muslims to talk in a “language” they desire and understand. Wish him the very best in his new venture, which insha-Allah will serve society at large. It is this constellation of role models which provides me hope, instills and invigorates the desire to be the “best in class”, the “most ethical”, “most efficient” human being; all of which automatically trickles down as the definition of “Islam” in the eyes of a non-believer. Such is the ultimate “Daawah”, don’t you think? Ironically though, it is the 'despised' United States, and the 'scorned' United Kingdom, which have both provided the environments, plus the opportunities for such creative and talented individuals to prosper. Zabihah was courtesy Palo Alto USA - not Dubai or Riyadh or Kabul for that matter. Food for thought, right?
In the end, I would like to congratulate the organizers for the stellar show. That said, it is what happens after the show that is of significance. What happens after the banker goes to his desk, is of consequence to the Halal producer. Will the financier still gun for the “large corporate” like his conventional counterpart, or has his thinking changed meaningfully (if at all)? If it has not, then all “Global Islamic Economy Conferences” will fail in their ultimate success – the practical manifestation of the beauty called “Islamic Economics”
Oh by the way, I still think Islamic Finance needs to change its name to Ethical Finance, but that for a later article. Bless you all and good luck to Dubai for 2020.....may the force be with you!
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