In just a few weeks’ time government and business leaders, academic scholars, regional experts and professionals from around 80 countries will come together in London for the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF).
Put simply, this is a big deal. It’s a big deal for the WIEF, because this year will mark the first time the Forum has been held outside the Muslim world. But it’s also a big deal for Britain.
I say that because the Muslim world is increasingly important to Britain’s prosperity.
As Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain is competing in a global race. The global landscape is changing, with economic power shifting East and South – not just to China, but also to India, and the burgeoning middle classes in the Middle East and South-East Asia. These are markets that the UK simply cannot ignore.
Take Indonesia as an example, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Its economy is growing fast. While growth is slowing, as it is across the emerging markets, the Indonesian economy is still expected to grow by more than 5 per cent this year and its long-term prospects look bright. At the same time the country is undergoing significant demographic change. According to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group, its 74 million-strong middle and upper classes are likely to increase to 141 million by 2020.
This trend is not unique. It is happening in countries across the world, many of which have significant Muslim populations. British companies are well-placed to capitalise, whether by supporting future growth in sectors such as transport, construction and professional services, or responding to rising demand for consumer goods.
The Muslim world is increasingly important to Britain’s prosperity
An area of particular potential is Islamic finance, which will form one important element of this year’s WIEF, which runs from October 29 to 31.
Many people don’t realise that London is already the leading Western hub for Islamic finance, or that our capital’s skyline has been transformed by it – with landmarks from the Shard to the Olympic Village financed in whole or in part by Islamic finance. London is home to no fewer than 20 Islamic banks, 25 law firms specialising in Islamic finance and dozens of other firms, from accountants to insurance brokers, with dedicated Islamic finance departments. The London Stock Exchange has attracted more than 50 Sharia-compliant listings in the last five years alone, valued at £22 billion.
But as anyone in business will tell you, standing still is not an option. We will only keep our competitive edge if we continue to challenge, innovate and improve. The Government recognises this and has established an Islamic Finance Task Force, which I co-chair, to promote the sector and champion London’s hosting of the WIEF.
It’s shaping up to be an excellent event. We have arranged a strong programme responsive to businesses’ needs and have already secured the attendance of a wide range of high-level speakers. With an estimated £5.8 billion in deals struck at the Forum last year, it’s clear that it offers a real platform for growth – a golden opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
We will use the WIEF to showcase the UK and strengthen our trading relationships with the countries that attend. For the first time at the Forum, we’ll also open a dedicated British Business Pavilion, which will showcase UK expertise across multiple sectors and strengthen the UK’s commercial relations with key decision-makers from high-growth markets. But as with most things, governments can only do so much. We need businesses to be more aware of the opportunities and more willing to make the most of them.
UK Trade & Investment already works with a wide variety of British businesses, from SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] to multinationals, to ensure their success in international markets. So no matter who you are, where you are or what industry you are in, if you’ve got a good product there are opportunities to export and UKTI can help. That’s a message I delivered when I travelled to the Gulf region recently to promote Britain as a business partner and invite guests from the region to attend the Forum.
WIEF’s theme this year is Changing World, New Relationships. By working together, government and business can ensure Britain is at the heart of that changing world, building new relationships that bring prosperity to all.
Baroness Warsi is Senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and Minister for Faith and Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government. She is also co-chairman of the Islamic Finance Task Force.