CAIRO - The economic stagnation of the past year and a half has taken a toll on many businesses, but a fleet of Islamic investment banks in Egypt sees opportunity in the emerging new order.
Ridge Islamic Capital, one such investment bank, has found a niche in the finance sector and made plans to capitalize on it. It offers Sharia-compliant investment banking, asset management and wealth management services to a market that experts say is primed for Islamic finance.
Launched in late September, the firm is among a slew of banks offering, or planning to offer, Islamic investment products.
Officials have repeatedly touted the resilience of Islamic finance, with the new government keen on broadening the industry. Officials said Egypt would introduce sukuk, or Islamic bonds, in a bid to ease the funding crisis brought about by diminished foreign reserves and a widening budget deficit.
The government is looking to raise the market share of Islamic finance to 35% from 5%, according to a Bloomberg report.
Egypt Independent sat down with the director of Ridge Islamic Capital, Ahmed Rizkallah, to discuss the bank’s mission and plans in Egypt, and why he thinks Islamic finance could help solve the speculation ills in the world economy.
First set up in May, Ridge Islamic Capital is the Islamic financial arm of Dubai-based regional investment company Ridge Solutions International Holding, which is part of the Angola-based Ridge Solutions Group.
In Angola, the conglomerate financed projects in the aquaculture, agriculture and industry sectors, amid the country’s real estate boom. At the peak of the financial crisis in 2008, though, the bank saw a new opportunity in the weaknesses of traditional free-market finance.
“Our chairman had a vision of capitalizing on the sustainable and resilient Islamic banking and finance industry,” said Rizkallah.
Bank officials saw over-speculation as one of the main causes of the financial crisis and saw Islamic finance as an antidote.
Less speculation means fewer market distortions.
“We believe that Islamic finance, in essence, is a very sustainable system,” he said.
An untapped market
The initial plan was to open an Islamic commercial bank in the region, Rizkallah said, but after some fine-tuning, the company decided to get into the specialty of Islamic investment banking.
In 2011, bank officials flagged Egypt as an ideal place for this expansion because of its “strong fundamentals.”
“For us, Egypt is the anchor of the region,” he said.
There was also room for expansion. Despite being the region’s most populous country, it is only seventh in terms of Islamic banking assets. The smaller Gulf nations have a much larger array of Islamic financial products.
It is estimated that less than 10 % of Egypt’s population uses banks. There are only three full-fledged Islamic financial institutions operating in Egypt, and 11 with Islamic banking operating windows, Rizkallah said.
It is an environment poised for growth, many experts say.
Angus Blair, founder of the Signet Institute, a Cairo-based think tank on Middle Eastern and North African economies, said some institutions have offered Islamic forms of products to clients, but not on a large scale. Previously, he said, a number of offshore companies offered services, but these transactions are now limited due to capital controls.
These customers will now have to go to local Islamic finance institutions for their banking and investment needs.
In comparison, there are more than 30 conventional banks in Egypt.
It certainly seems the high rate of growth will continue. The Islamic financing industry — still nascent, compared with conventional banking — has expanded considerably in recent years, with experts putting the annual growth rate between 10 and 15%.
“Islamic banking is considered the fastest growing segment in the global financial system,” Jose Ramos, chairman and executive president of Ridge Solutions Group, said in a statement.
Islamic banking assets are about 5–7%, compared with banking assets in general in Egypt, according to Rizkallah.
“The theme is modern Islamic services,” he said. “By saying Islamic, we are not alienating anyone. It’s not about stereotyping or segregating investors, it’s about showing that we have a different way of offering services.”
The firm plans to launch a regional fund of funds soon, with a target size of $150 million. This has already been approved by the Central Bank of Bahrain.
“We’ll screen the Sharia-compliant funds in the region,” he said. Other products allow investors to put money in the stock market, in a Sharia-compliant way, using fixed-income securities.
Locally, there’s a negative perception of Islamic finance due to previously unregulated attempts in the market to provide these services. In the 1990s, the sector was marred by several scams, which gave the niche market a bad name.
“The result was that people divided into two groups: people who want Islamic because of religious reasons, without caring about the impact and regardless of the bank’s modernization [or lack thereof],” said Rizkallah. “The other group is completely against it, thinking it’s just an emotional and sentimental sort of a business.”
He said residents in the Gulf, Europe and Asia have a better approach.
“People look at what you’re offering them and giving them in return,” he said. “They just care about how this is going to affect their wealth.”
On the political level, Rizkallah is confident that the people in power will continue to promote Islamic finance.
“After the revolution, politicians realized that we need to be open to everything,” he said. “We should accept anything that might benefit the country.”
This story originally appeared in Egypt Independent's print edition.