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Friday, March 6, 2009

A Muslim Davos

Asim Siddiqui,

This week saw the meeting of the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF), the equivalent of the Muslim world's Davos, held this year in Jakarta. In attendance were heads of states and senior government figures from across the Muslim world, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, UAE and Qatar, with delegates from 38 countries.

The purpose of the WIEF is to increase trade and business activity among Muslim countries and beyond. I had the privilege of chairing one of the sessions. Fazil Irwan, director at the WIEF Foundation explained to me that WIEF's central pillar is to develop itself as a networking conduit between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, as they believe business collaboration can generate greater prosperity and mutual understanding. Established in 2004, WIEF gives particular focus on investing in women and the young; understandable given the high levels of unemployment among these two categories in Muslim countries.

The Muslim world's economic performance is generally dire. Despite making up one-fifth of the world's population, it produces a measly 7% of its output. Much of the discussion at the WIEF revolved around the global economic meltdown and its impact on Muslim countries that are now facing economic contraction, job losses and greater poverty due to the reckless model of unfettered market liberalism. With the interconnectivity that comes with globalisation, no state is immune. The systemic failure of the current banking model has generated much more official interest in Islamic finance. Shariah-compliant finance is based on financing secured against underlying tangible assets and involves risk-sharing between the parties in the pursuit of genuine commercial activities, rather than profiteering from paper instruments whose trail often led back to highly leveraged low-quality debt (better known now as toxic debt). There was a widespread view among those attending (including non-Muslims) that Islamic finance could provide one possible way out of the current malaise and become an important foundation in a new, more stable world economic order.

One official pointed out that it is not the labeling of products as "Islamic" that is the solution, as it is perfectly possible for a shariah-compliant bank to create sophisticated financial products that end up mirroring the conventional system. What is needed is ethical standards for the financial system based on transparent risk assessments and controlled debt levels. Whether such a model of greater fairness and integrity should be necessarily labelled with the exclusive term "Islamic" is a separate debate. Gordon Brown yesterday, in his speech to Congress, spoke in similar terms when he said that "markets should be free but never values-free, that the risks people take should never be separated from the responsibilities they meet".

The conference showed the efforts the Muslim world is making to help pull the world out of recession. Indonesia itself is home to the world's largest Muslim population, the third largest democracy and the fourth largest population, at 230 million. It is also a member of the G20. Its stable democracy and impressive economic growth over the last decade has marked Indonesia out as a front-line state in the west's greater desire for a more respectful engagement with the Muslim world after the Bush years.

Indonesia is seen as a possible template of how to deal with Muslim democracies and markets, new and old. In her recent visit to Jakarta in February, Hillary Clinton asked colleagues whether Indonesia held lessons for Pakistan, a state with the sixth largest population but far less stable. Given the different role Islam plays in Pakistani and Javanese culture and public life it is not immediately clear what those lessons might be. Indonesia is also strategically important given its commanding presence over the narrow Strait of Malacca, through which supertankers transport Middle Eastern oil to the Pacific Rim. There is great excitement here that President Obama may choose Jakarta to deliver his promised address to the Muslim world from a Muslim capital, the home of his childhood school.

The way out of the current economic crisis will require innovative thinking and a meeting of minds. The WIEF provides one such forum.

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