Lord Risby is the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Algeria
No doubt in part because of the current focus on energy suppliers, banker bashing has been in retreat. But the calming and measured influence of the Governor of the Bank of England and the new structural, tax and regulatory regime introduced by George Osborne have certainly helped. And even BBC interviewers sound weary when every new Labour spending idea is repeatedly and absurdly to be paid for by the same old proposed tax increase on bankers. It is almost unimaginable that since the dark days of the financial crisis here, brought on in large measure by Gordon Brown’s failed tripartite regulatory system, that the City of London could be bouncing back so strongly.
The opening session of the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum was brought to a close with a well-received speech by the Prince of Wales. But it was the Prime Minister’s speech in the morning which set the tone. The sheer delight of many British Muslim business people present was palpable, not only because of the increased business possibilities emerging for them, but also because it was something of an antidote to the embarrassment that a small minority of co-religionists here have caused them. Double tax on Islamic mortgages and extended tax relief on Islamic mortgages have already been removed, but recently new commitments have been made to open up student loans and business start-up loans to Muslims in this country, which had acted as a barrier to talented young Muslims being able to go to university.
Present were 19 Heads of State, five Central Bank Governors, and some 250 small businesses, amongst the 2000 delegates in the Excel Centre. Ten of the world’s 25 fastest growing markets are in Muslim-majority countries. In the last three years, UK exports of goods and services were up by 74 per cent to Morocco, 69 per cent to Saudi Arabia, 47 per cent to Qatar, 45 per cent to Indonesia, 44 per cent to Turkey, 39 per cent to the UAE and 29 per cent to Malaysia. UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) organised a British Business Pavilion which focused on four main sector themes – health, education, Islamic finance and infrastructure, and Smart Cities encompassing new technologies, sustainability and urban planning.
Just as the first renminbi bond issued outside China has been earmarked for Britain, so the welcome mat is now being comprehensively extended to other new potential investors in a more focused way. Much has been made of the ground-breaking issue of £200 million Sukkuks, a bond compliant with Islamic law. It is small, but a start. However, it sends out a further signal to the Islamic world’s £1.3bn investment funds that are available for funding large capital projects abroad. Muslim countries have enormous, well-established and admired sovereign wealth funds. Kuwait and Abu Dhabi have been long established here. They are highly professionally managed. The relatively new fund in Azerbaijan is run by a Harvard graduate.
In all of this, we should acknowledge the role played by Cameron and Osborne, plus Sayeeda Warsi and Sajid Javid, as well as Boris Johnson. He announced a £100 million Islamic finance fund for hi-tech start-ups, all externally funded. Eventually the London Stock Exchange will have an Islamic index. The challenge is to make sure the benefits of our national attractiveness extend beyond London.
Nevertheless, this conference was a real coup for our capital city. As we observe the agonies of internal devaluation and high unemployment, unsustainably high taxes and an anti-business environment which beset some of our neighbours, we have to look away from our traditional export markets to where growth and prosperity are clearly more evident. It is simply imperative for us to do so successfully, and this week has been part of this process.