Islamic finance media heralds good times

The success of the sector is being achieved on the back of a strong performance in Islamic banking.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Nov 12: Electronic board showing the status of different companies at Dubai Financial Market in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National)
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While both the journalism and the financial industries stumble through some of their darkest days in recent history, one sector of financial journalism is enjoying rapid growth: Islamic finance news. In the next two months, three Arabic-language financial news portals with regional and global aspirations will launch in the UAE, all of them catering to varying degrees to the growing interest in Shariah-complaint financial instruments.

The latest to join the trend is Alaswaq Alarabiya, the online business and finance presence of MBC's Al Arabiya news channel, which this week announced plans to launch, an e-portal dedicated to Islamic finance products and services. "Islamic finance has always been a topic of interest for a lot of our audience," said Ammar Bakkar, the director of new media at MBC. "We believe it is an important sector, and there is a large number of people, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia, where they are interested in learning about Islamic finance services."

Although the portal will be open to all kinds of Islamic finance, it will focus especially on the stricter version practised in Saudi Arabia, where the Alaswaq Alarabiya website has its biggest audience. "We are more focused on being close to the school of thought that is popular in the GCC region," he said. The site was being launched in partnership with Mawarid Finance, the Dubai-based private finance company specialising in Shariah-compliant financial services, which was both funding the project and supporting it through the company's relationships with Islamic organisations, he said.

Meanwhile, one of Al Arabiya's main competitors in business news, CNBC Arabiya, is putting the finishing touches on a "radically redesigned" version of its own Arabic-language financial news portal, which is set to launch this year, according to Steven Hall, the company's chief executive. As with CNBC Arabiya's television channel, which recently relaunched its Shariah-compliant finance show, the new portal would have extensive coverage of Islamic finance, he said.

"We do a fair bit with Islamic banking," Mr Hall said. "I think we are uniquely poised to do it, with the financial background the cultural background that we have." Shortly thereafter, the financial news portal of I-Media, the Abu Dhabi-based company behind the soon-to-be-launched Arabic newspaper Alroya Altiqtissadiya, will also go live, according to Qusai Aljamous, the executive editor-in-chief. The Arabic and English-language portal would also have extensive coverage of Islamic financial instruments, he said.

Some of the industry's recent rapid growth is a result of the global financial crisis, which has badly damaged the traditional financial institutions that had previously supported financial journalism. "Particularly since the meltdown in the western capitalist system, there has been increasingly large focus on the virtues of Islamic finance," said Max Linnington, the regional head of Middle East and South Asia for Bloomberg, which moved to Dubai in October to expand the company's sales force and its Islamic finance information gathering operation.

"We expect to increase our news coverage of Islamic finance market," he said. To that end, last week the company appointed Riad Hamade as its first managing editor of Middle East and Africa, based in Dubai. It has also moved its Islamic finance data collection from Europe and Asia to Dubai and also appointed the company's first Middle East product manager. The company already offers many Islamic finance services, ranging from profiles of Islamic scholars to issuance league tables for sukuk, and it plans to do a formal launch of its Islamic finance service in the second half of next year.

But much of the growth had been under way before the credit crunch bit. Andrew Morgan, the managing director and publisher of the Red Money Group, the Malaysia-based publishing company that publishes Islamic Finance News, said he has seen "phenomenal growth" in the industry since his company launched in 2004. "New players are entering the market every day," he said. "When we launched there were only a few markets that were worth covering, outside of Malaysia, Brunei and the GCC. Since then, in Asia, we've seen Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea. China are very interested in GCC money. We are seeing new players from Africa come in. We are seeing business from all corners of the world." The growth of Islamic finance has attracted many larger news organisations to the market, including Euromoney, which runs the Islamic Finance Information Service (IFIS) as one of the products of its emerging markets division. Since it launched in 2003, IFIS has expanded from three to about 75 countries and rolled out an array of new services, from regulatory resources to a listing of Islamic finance lawyers, according to Rakiya Sanusi, the director of the IFIS. She said the services has taken a few hits from the economic downturn, but has also been buoyed by people's increasing curiosity about Shariah-compliant products. "There's been an increase in internet [traffic] in Islamic finance, so we don't expect to be affected to badly," she said. More recently, Mr Morgan said seen glossy magazines on Islamic finance "coming thick and fast" from the GCC. "Everybody has jumped on the bandwagon," he said.