Islamic Banking and the Politics of International Financial Harmonization

Kristin Smith

In the mid-1970’s, the Arab Gulf made a dramatic entrance onto world financialmarkets. In one year, oil prices quadrupled, precipitating the fastest transfer of wealth inthe twentieth century. Many Gulfis who previously had no dealings with financialinstitutions had their first introduction to banking. It quickly became apparent howeverthat there was a tension between the institutions and norms underlying Western financeand the prevailing belief amongst many Gulfis that earning interest is forbidden by Islam.Throughout the Gulf, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, religiously observant individualschose to leave their money in non-interest bearing accounts rather than contraveneIslamic law.This cultural difference opened up the space for entrepreneurs to mediate betweenthe global system and local beliefs and customs. The result was the creation of Islamicbanks: financial intermediaries that offer services similar to those of conventional banks,but through financial instruments legally structured to comply with Islamic religious law(Shariah). The entrepreneurs behind this institutional innovation have been able to createa profitable niche for themselves amongst the religiously conservative populations of theGulf. Beyond their marketing advantage, they have likewise used demands for paritywith conventional banks to receive government contracts, and the desire of foreigninvestors to present a “local” face on their business to market themselves for jointventures. Their advantages are not strictly economic, however, as my research into theIslamic finance industry in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE has shown.

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