The deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, as per the directive issued by the Central Bank of Qatar (CBQ) in January 2011 requiring the country's conventional banks which have opened Islamic banking windows to close them down, has passed almost unnoticed.
Despite the initial outcry at the time of the announcement of the directive stressing that it was too arbitrary and the grace period was too tight, there has been no upheaval of the Islamic finance industry in the emirate. Some Islamic bankers are now arguing that the move was required to stem the alleged rampant co-mingling of conventional and Islamic funds at some of the Islamic banking windows, and that the Qatari Islamic banking sector has been successfully re-aligned and consolidated.
The successful implementation of the directive in Qatar could well have implications for other markets in the region and beyond where Islamic banking windows are prevalent. The clear message of the directive is that dedicated standalone Islamic banks are preferable to half-way houses where co-mingling and all sorts of compromises are possible if not the norm. They also give greater legal, regulatory and Shariah compliance clarity and comfort to those depositors and investors interested in Islamic finance.
The affected banks included the Al-Islami window of Qatar National Bank (QNB), the largest bank in the emirate; Commercial Bank of Qatar; Doha Bank; HSBC Amanah; Ahli Bank; Al-Khaliji Bank and International Bank of Qatar (IBQ), which between them had 16 Islamic banking branches in Qatar.
On Jan. 1, 2012 it became clear that only one such window, Al-Yusr of International Bank of Qatar, was acquired by two local Islamic banks — the retail banking assets and business was acquired by Barwa Bank, the newest of the Qatari Islamic banks, while the corporate banking assets and portfolio was acquired by Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB), the largest Islamic bank in the emirate.
The other banks had wound down their Islamic banking window operations complete with removing all signage and of course not opening any new accounts or businesses. Existing Islamic banking customers were in some cases given the option of switching to the banks' conventional banking business or in other cases to continue payments until affected Islamic financing facilities matured.
An unrepentant CBQ Gov. Sheikh Abdullah bin Saud Al-Thani as late as mid December 2011 warned the affected banks that the directive was "irreversible" and that they must comply with its provisions. In his keynote speech to the 8th International Conference on Islamic Economics and Finance (ICIEF) which was held in Doha in December 2011, Al-Thani articulated the reasons behind the central bank's directive, which he confirmed is irreversible.
The Islamic Banking Windows, according to Gov. Al-Thani, made it difficult for the banking regulator to effectively implement its monitoring and supervision of these windows.
This issue could not have been highlighted more aptly during the acquisition of Al-Yusr's Islamic Retail Banking business. As the first such transaction to be closed in the region, albeit under Qatari law, there were some legal and other regulatory challenges which UK law firm, Eversheds, which acted for Barwa Bank, successfully navigated through within the provisions of existing Qatari legislation.
"The IBQ window was not a separate legal entity. As such, its assets and liabilities were a part of the conventional bank. We therefore had to consider how best to separate and then package and transfer these assets and liabilities. There were also challenges concerning transition services that were required post completion to serve the transferring customers," explained Amjad Hussain, partner and head of Islamic Finance at Eversheds, in a recent interview.
The central bank also found that the coupling of conventional and Islamic banking activities at the same institution, undermined competition and transparency in the affected banks. At the same time, there is much confusion over the balance sheet treatment of the assets and liabilities of the Islamic banking windows in the financial reports of the conventional banks, which are not separated. As such this has implications for the risk management process of the institution.
Al-Thani gave the thumbs up to the Qatari Islamic banking industry which boasts four Islamic banks — Qatar Islamic Bank, Qatar International Islamic Bank, Masraf Al-Rayan and Barwa Bank. These banks, he added, have a crucial role in the country's banking sector and economy, in compliance with the objectives of the Qatar Vision 2030 and its first application through the First Strategic National Development Project 2011-2016.
He reminded Qatari Islamic banks of their partnership role in financing economic development and projects in the country, and stressed that he was confident that the Qatari Islamic banks will rise to and are capable of taking up this challenge together with their conventional counterparts. The Islamic banking sector has a 20 percent market share of the total banking industry in Qatar, which has four dedicated standalone Islamic banks.
It was way back in 2005 that the CBQ allowed conventional banks to launch Islamic Banking Units (IBUs), which have contributed to the growth of the sector and to the profitability of the banks, and which have attracted an estimated customer base of just under 100,000.
Eversheds' Hussain rejects any notion of arbitrariness in the action of the CBQ in issuing the directive. The action, he contended, is "part of a wider process of supporting and shoring up the banking industry in Qatar. You have to look at it in the context of the proactive approach of the central bank during the recession when it helped a number of local banks to remove some of the toxic debts that they had exposure to. The CBQ is also making sure that there are enough opportunities for all the market players."
Previously, the Islamic banking windows were barely competing because of co-mingling issues and because they were able to offset overheads through the conventional banks. There was a feeling that the market was not as transparent as it could be. In addition to regulatory issues, the central bank had to deal with two separate businesses dealing with different banking activities - Islamic and conventional.
"I believe competition was an issue, because the pure Islamic banks were seen to be at a disadvantage. The Islamic banking windows at the conventional banks were able to use backroom services in their banks. There were also regulatory and corporate governance concerning how manage different banking platforms under one roof which is what the conventional banks were trying to do. This resulted in a culmination of issues which the CBQ is trying to address in its efforts to improve out the banking sector," explained Hussain.