by Sean Cronin on Thursday, 10 July 2008
Islamic banks are moving to centre stage in the Gulf as they bid to take market share from conventional lenders. Sean Cronin meets the founders of Abu Dhabi government-backed Al Hilal Bank and gets a taste of the new face of Sharia-compliant lending in the UAE.
It looks more like an Easyjet office than an Islamic bank, but the bright orange livery of the UAE’s latest Sharia-compliant lender is designed to set it apart from the crowd.
Hours from opening on its first day of trading, the main Abu Dhabi branch of Al Hilal Bank is a hive of activity with a line of tellers already sitting at their counters as workmen scurry around the brightly decorated banking hall, applying the finishing touches.
Al Hilal CEO Mohamed Jamil Berro is overseeing the organised mayhem and appears a picture of calm amid the frantic last-minute preparations that are going on all around him.
“This is a sample of the freshness that we are trying to project,” says the former Arab Bank executive. “It’s why we chose the orange, it’s an example of the differentiation we are trying to achieve.”
It is also a reflection of the changing face of Islamic banking in the UAE as it bids to move to the mainstream and displace the still larger conventional banking sector. Al Hilal becomes the eighth lender complying with Sharia to be launched in the UAE as the Islamic banking sector looks to tap growing wealth across the Gulf.
Berro believes that trend is gaining rapid momentum as Islamic lenders increasingly offer the bundle of services that their conventional competitors provide.
“The Islamic banking industry is growing and we think Islamic banks will take centre stage as the overall pie is growing,” he says. “The aim is to provide the customer with a bundle of products and services.”
Berro even believes Al Hilal will go one better with a plan to develop what it describes as a ‘financial mall’ around its main branch in Abu Dhabi — one of four branches around the UAE.
The basic idea is that customers visiting the branch will also be able to access dedicated home, car and personal loans — all with their own dedicated shop fronts. Women and children are also offered dedicated banking services in the mall.
A car showroom is available for customers seeking new wheels while a theatre has been installed for “movie presentations”. It’s all a long way away from the typical regional retail banking experience.
In a place where shopping has almost reached national pastime status, the mall is likely to be popular with customers.
“We are aiming for 10 branches in the UAE this year and next year we expect similar or bigger growth,” says Berro.
The bank will be joined by other newly arrived Islamic players looking to tap growing wealth across the Gulf, including Ajman Bank and Noor Islamic Bank in the UAE and Al Khaliji Bank in Qatar.