Maldives spearheads growth of Islamic finance in South Asia
Many identify the Maldives as an idyllic tropical island holiday destination, but little is known about the fact that the country is making plenty of waves in developing its Islamic finance industry towards an investment hub for South Asia and centre for the halal industry in the region. As an Islamic country – the 1997 Constitution of the Maldives designates Islam as the official state religion – the Maldives was quick in building up an Islamic finance industry at a fast pace with the long-term objective to become an offshore finance centre for Shariah-compliant investments, mainly in order to diversify its industry away from dominating tourism. To that end, President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom’s government has developed a roadmap to expand Islamic financial services throughout the archipelago and base it on official regulations by the Maldives Monetary Authority. According to Aishath Muneeza, Deputy Minister in the Maldives Ministry of Finance and Treasury and chairwoman of the Shariah Advisory Committee of the Capital Market Development Authority Maldives, the share of Shariah-compliant financial assets were already at around 5% of total assets by the end of last year, and increasing. “The growth of Islamic finance is happening at a very fast pace,” she said, adding that “I hope that we will be able to create an Islamic finance centre and act as the leader for Islamic finance and the halal industry in the South Asia region.” The advent of Islamic finance in the Maldives dates back to 2003 when the country saw the establishment of its first Islamic finance institution, Amana Takaful Maldives, a fully-fledged Islamic insurance company. But due to little knowledge among the population about the characteristics of Islamic finance at that point of time, it took until 2011 for the first Islamic bank to open, Maldives Islamic Bank, with registered capital of $12mn and the assistance of Saudi-based Islamic Corp for the Development of the Private Sector, or ICD, a unit of the Islamic Development Bank. But from then onwards, the growth of Islamic finance in the country happened at an impressive speed as awareness among the population about Shariah-compliant banking and investment grew and banks and other financial institutions widened their product offerings and services for both retail and corporate customers. In 2012, the first Islamic window of a non-banking financial institution, HDFC Amna, a unit of the Maldivian housing finance Corp HDFC, was introduced to offer musharakah-based home financing instruments. Other financial institutions followed, namely Alia Investment, a private firm offering financing based on ijarah contracts. Later on, an Islamic finance-based Haj pilgrim fund, Maldives Haj Corp, was launched, and the largest bank and the largest insurer of the country, Bank of Maldives and Allied Insurance Maldives, respectively, opened Islamic finance windows. To cope with demand for Islamic finance experts, the government asked the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance, or INCEIF, to start offering Islamic finance courses in the Maldives to expand skills of conventional banking staff, and later on launched the Maldives Centre for Islamic Finance, designed to strengthen the Maldives’ footprint as a hub for Islamic finance and the halal industry in South Asia. Furthermore, halal certification was introduced in 2014 and a halal logo for aquaculture and fishery products created. Last year, the Ministry of Economic Development started offering Islamic microfinancing through the Bank of Maldives, and earlier in 2016, the government launched Hazana Maldives, a special-purpose vehicle for the further development of Islamic finance. It also created a Shariah advisory board and laid the regulatory framework for sukuk investment, an important move in the economic diversification drive of the tourism-dependent island nation as Islamic bonds normally entice larger funds. In a first focus, the Maldivian government plans to tap Islamic finance from India via debt sales and deposits. India has a huge Muslim population of 166mn, but so far no Islamic finance industry because of opposition from Hindu lawmakers. Incentives for Indian Muslims to use Islamic finance vehicles in the Maldives instead of Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka are that the industry – although having a solid regulation framework – is not as much regulated as those of its bigger rivals in the region and thus is more likely to attract bigger players in the industry.