Islamic finance is no longer a Middle East form of financing. In the last year the UK Government has made a concerted effort to promote sharia-compliant financial instruments, adapting regulations to facilitate their smooth entry into the market.
With activity in this area of finance gaining pace rapidly, it is no wonder the head of legal at the European Islamic Investment Bank (EIIB) Mohaimin Chowdhury has been run off his feet since joining the bank in 2005.
“A lot’s changed since the bank was launched two years ago. Islamic finance is obviously well established elsewhere, but it’s relatively new in the UK. It’s been fascinating to watch it develop,” Chowdhury says.
In March The Lawyer (22 March) reported on HM Treasury’s decision to provide tax breaks to sharia-compliant instruments as part of its wider strategy to become the Western Islamic finance centre of the world.
Chowdhury says: “We’re authorised by the Financial Services Authority [FSA] and there’s been a lot of support for the growth of the bank. We obviously had to make sure we complied with regulation. It was challenging, but the FSA was very helpful.”
The bank provides a range of sharia-compliant products ranging from capital markets products, asset management and corporate finance instruments.
The EIIB has alliances with other Islamic banks across the world, including the Dubai Islamic Bank and Al-Salam Bank in Bahrain.
Having developed strong relationships with conventional banks such as Barclays Capital, Standard Chartered and HSBC, in its brief history the EIIB has become a key player in the banking and investment market.
“I’m certainly kept very busy throughout the day. I think my role as head of legal is probably quite different to other general counsel positions in conventional banks. The sharia-compliant element makes a big difference,” Chowdhury says.
The process of approving an instrument as sharia-compliant involves consulting a board of scholars, which discusses each detail of the instrument.
The legal team at the EIIB has to ensure that each instrument is fully approved by the board of scholars before it can go to market.
“This process can be complicated and often things aren’t approved and we have to redesign elements of the product in order to get it to market. This takes time and is an added dimension to what we do.”
With experience at the Dubai Islamic Bank and extensive knowledge of sharia law, Chowdhury dedicates a lot of time to structuring products.
As well as working on a number of long-term projects such as structuring real estate funds, which are typically lengthy projects, Chowdhury works on a number of daily tasks unique to the EIIB.
He explains: “On a daily basis we’ll deal with bank syndicates and getting the sharia compliance agreed for these. This tends to be a quicker process and we deal with these as well as longer-term, more complex projects.”
Chowdhury runs a three-strong team from the EIIB London office, which includes one legal assistant and one associate. The office in Bahrain also has a further three-lawyer team.
With its relationship with banks in the Middle East, Chowdhury not only deals with work from the UK office, but also work connected with offices in these other jurisdictions.
“It’s an international operation and we do a lot of work in-house. The bank’s currently making plans to move into Malaysia. This will be a very important part of our development,” he says.
With such a diverse range of areas to cover on a daily basis, and operating in a fast-paced finance area, the EIIB always requires firms that can bring a variety of expertise to the table.
“We’ve used a number of firms for different areas. We don’t have a formal panel, but there are a group of firms we’ve used regularly and who we trust,” Chowdhury says.
Chowdhury explains: “Islamic finance is a specialist area and we use firms we know have the right experience in structuring these instruments and with finance in general.
Head of legal services
European Islamic Investment Bank (EIIB)
|Title:||Head of legal services|
|Organisation:||European Islamic Investment Bank (EIIB)|
|Reporting to:||Managing director John Weguelin|
|Total number of employees:||41|
|Legal capability:||Three each in London and Bahrain|
|Main law firms:||Clifford Chance, Dechert, Linklaters, Norton Rose, -Simmons & Simmons|
|Mohaimin Chowdhury’s CV||