Bahrain looks for regional edge with central sharia board

The central bank already has a sharia board but its scope is limited to vetting its own products

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Bahrain's central bank is drafting legal documentation to set up a sharia board of scholars that would oversee the kingdom's Islamic finance sector, in a step that could help the market compete with regional rivals.

The central bank already has a sharia board but its scope is limited to vetting its own products. A country-level approach - which is so far rare in the Gulf - could help to limit differences between products, speed the design of new products and boost investor confidence.

A "legal instrument" is now being prepared that would set out details of the sharia board, Khalid Hamad, the central bank's executive director of banking supervision, told Reuters. He did not specify a timeframe.

Oman's central bank set up a sharia supervisory board last October but unlike Oman, Bahrain has positioned itself as a regional financial centre, with historical links to Saudi and Kuwaiti financial institutions, a status that in recent years has seen growing competition from Dubai and Doha.

"This will give us an edge to other markets, allowing more products to be attractive," Najla Al Shirawi, chief executive of investment bank SICO Bahrain, which oversees over $1 billion in assets under management, said of Bahrain's plan for a central sharia board.

Islamic banks in the Gulf have traditionally practiced self- regulation on the issue of religious permissibility, using their own individual sharia boards to ensure the sharia-compliance of their products.

This approach proved popular for Islamic banks developing their own bespoke products, but as the industry matures, attention is shifting to facilitating volume transactions which are cost- and time-effective.

"More innovation is needed in this space, in particular tools such as sharia-compliant repurchase agreements and profit rate swaps. These are doable but need to be more widely accepted across the region," said Shirawi.

As it stands now, if tools such as Islamic repurchase agreements are to be used, clients face a cumbersome process of clearing transactions with every financial institution involved, she added.

"Every institution has its own structure, and they must go through documentation again and again. So to have a standard approach will make things easier."

Bahrain's central bank also plans to introduce rules to expand its internal sharia review and audit functions, while making it mandatory for banks to undergo an independent external sharia audit.

The United Arab Emirates is the only other regulator in the Gulf to have announced a plan to adopt a centralised sharia approach. This would be backed by specific legislation, but a firm timetable has not been given for the plan.

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