Our Blog

  • Muslim world is open for business

    We are posting this article here first published in The National (a little belatedly, as the forum began 4th December) as an insight into the growing opportunities among Muslim consumers, and why brands need to get involved as soon as they can.

    The 8th World Islamic Economic Forum begins in Malaysia today. A forum for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it is a chance for entrepreneurs and artists from all walks of life, young and old, to network and showcase their work and achievements

    JOHOR BAHRU // On the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula, the commercial city of Johor Bahru is this week the location for the 8th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF).

    Dubbed the Davos of the Islamic World, the conference will be the setting for high-profile dignitaries such as the Malaysian prime minister, Dato’ Najib Tun Abdul Razak, and the president of Comoros, Ikililou Dhoinine, along with the deputy prime minister of Singapore, special representatives of the prime minister of Qatar and of the president of Pakistan, and the president of the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah.

    Now in its eighth year, the WIEF’s strapline is “Building Bridges through Business”. Previous conferences have taken place in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Kuwait.

    Conscious of recent global economic and political events, this year’s conference is entitled: “Changing trends, new opportunities.”

    Over the course of three days, beginning today, it will cover the expected topics such as innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability, plus more diverse subjects such as nanontech, waqf investments and disaster mitigation. There are also several sessions devoted to networking. The forum is keen to emphasise that the event is not only about VIPs, but about participation from small and medium-sized businesses, young and female entrepreneurs and creative artists.

    Running alongside the main forum is a Youth Business Network stream and a Women’s Business Network, and the WIEF is also hosting a Marketplace of Creative Arts, now in its fifth iteration.

    It is this mix of discussions and networking that means the forum is set to draw 2,100 delegates from 86 countries to the conference. One of them is Basim El Karra, who has travelled here from the US city of Sacramento, California. It is the third time he has attended, and he says it is a great opportunity “to meet Muslims from around the world who are working hard to make positive change in their societies through entrepreneurship”.

    Mr El Karra is the executive director of the Council on AmericanIslamic Relations (CAIR-Sacramento), as well as a crisis-management and media- relations expert who advises Silicon Valley bosses. Like many attending the forum, he spans both industry and Muslim community engagement.

    He says it is “a long way” to travel but it is worth it because minority populations such as his have just as much standing at a Muslim forum such as this.

    In contrast to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, it invites Muslims such as Mr El Karra to participate, wherever they are from, along with non-Muslims. The latter is something they are particularly proud of.

    “The joint UK and US delegation which I’m part of has always had great access to the highest levels of the conference, holding round-table discussions with business and political leaders,” says Mr El Karra.

    The WIEF believes that its “bridges” will encourage investment and skills transfer, which will in turn increase economic opportunities and reduce income disparities among the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims – who collectively earn 80 per cent less than the world average income.

    Almost one in four of the world’s population is Muslim, and this 1.8 billion population is expected to grow to 2.2 billion by 2030. After China and India, it’s referred to as the “third one billion” opportunity.

    In 2005, the WIEF held its inaugural conference “to facilitate business amongst the Muslim World, promoting and encouraging profits that would eventually flow down to the much neglected peoples”. Wrapped up in its areligious, apolitical stance is the aspiration to create a forum for greater interaction between Muslims and the wider world, addressing the theory of the clash of civilisations through business.

    “When people get together for business, they forget their political, religious and ideological differences because there is one compelling commonality that matters most before them – and that is the impetus to be peaceful and prosperous,” says Tun Musa Hitam, the WIEF chairman and former deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

    Nonetheless, the political and economic backdrop to the forum is without doubt on everyone’s minds. This year’s forum was originally planned for Bahrain. Its relocation to Johor Bahru is indicative of the pragmatism that reigns.

    “While we are all concerned with unrest in the Middle East, businesses have to realise that they have a significant role to play in the recovery process,” says Mr Hitam. “As the countries emerging from the protests begin to introduce new laws, government and civil society, so too will come new business opportunities, and our role is to ensure that when the time is right, the proper connections can be made.”

    In October, the WIEF held its sixth round- table in London. Interim events such as this are structured to provide continuity between the larger-scale annual conferences.

    This time, it was the eurozone crisis that was uppermost in mind, looking at the lessons it holds for the Muslim world, as well as returning to the central theme of “challenges and opportunities to doing business with the Muslim World”.

    It is this mixture of optimism and realism that makes the WIEF different to political organisations that focus mainly on Muslim majorities.

    It has also led to 15 partnerships over the past three forums. These included a memorandum of understanding between Coca- Cola and the WIEF Foundation to boost socio-economic development within the Muslim world, with an emphasis on helping less developed nations, development of female entrepreneurship and combating poverty. There are rumours that several more partnership agreements will be signed during this year’s conference.

    There is a worry that western investors are cautious when considering opportunities in the Muslim world. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the deputy prime minister of Singapore, feels that this is “a timely opportunity for leaders from both Muslim and non-Muslim countries to take stock of the changes in the international economy and financial markets following the global financial crisis”. It is also an opportunity for small and medium- sized businesses in the Muslim world, particularly younger entrepreneurs, to realise their potential in creating brands that can wield significant power across the world. Publications such as the Harvard Business Review are already wondering if “Made in MENA [Middle East and North Africa]” will be the next big label on the global business stage. “Of the global Muslim population, it is estimated that 65 per cent are below the age of 30,” says Fazil Irwan Bin Mohd Som, the executive director and head of the WIEF Young Leaders Network. “Businesses are recognising this growing youth demographic and adapting their businesses and products accordingly.” His organisation is responsible for the Marketplace for Creative Arts, an outlet for artists to promote their talents more widely. For the artists, it’s a welcome move from such a significant Muslim organisation. Nelson Yeo, a filmmaker from Singapore, says the event is an avenue for artists from all over the world to “get together and share ideas.” He will be showcased alongside 31 artists from 17 countries, including singers, dancers, musicians, spoken word artists and cartoonists. The Women’s Business Network aims to “help women become aware of their strengths and seize the economic opportunities that exist before them,” says its chairman Dato’ Dr Norraesah Mohamad. “Although changing the mindset of both men and women is still a painful work in progress, the environment is getting more womenfriendly simply out of necessity,” she said. “Women should view challenges as opportunities in disguise and recognise that women have been the significant drivers of the global economy during the past two decades.”

    Both the Young Leaders and the Business Women’s networks have their own sub-forums on the second day of the conference. During the year they run global internship programmes, a scholarship programme and women entrepreneurs workshops. The WIEF Roundtable Series is held quarterly to convene smaller regional programs where local business and government leaders can address practical challenges facing the resident Muslim community. Locations to date include Bahrain, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, Bangladesh and London.

    London will be the host city of the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum in October next year, the first time it will be held in a country without a majority Muslim population.

    The city’s deputy mayor, Sir Edward Lister, will be in Johor Bahru this week with Alan Duncan, the UK’s minister for international development.

    To the WIEF chairman, the choice of London is an entirely natural development. London “holds a unique place in the conventional and Islamic finance markets and is an epicentre for global trade,” says Mr Hitam. Its historic links with the Muslim world, and its well established, diverse Muslim population are also attractions.

    For the time being, the focus is on Johor Bahru. As Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a member of the WIEF Foundation’s International Advisory Panel, says: “Come, talk, engage – the Muslim world is open for business.”