Earlier this year I was invited by the British Chamber of Commerce of Morocco to give a speech on ‘Developments in Islamic Finance in the UK’ at a conference on “Islamic Finance in Morocco”. The conference happily coincided with the visit last week of the Rt Hon Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Fiona Woolf, so I was able to join her delegation for a very full and productive programme in Casablanca and Rabat. As well as a 20 strong business delegation, the Lord Mayor was supported by the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Morocco, Lord Sharman.
The Lord Mayor and all the delegates received a very warm welcome throughout Morocco and a constant theme was the strong desire of our interlocutors to deal with the UK and London in particular. TheCityUK has a Memorandum of Understanding with Casablanca Financial City (CFC) to help them promote Casablanca as a regional financial centre. Morocco wants international companies to use the CFC as a springboard for entry into the region and in particular French speaking African markets.
As part of the growing relationship between London and Casablanca I was pleased to learn during my visit of the signing of three agreements between the Chief Executives of the London and Casablanca Stock Exchanges to establish a strategic partnership; the former supplying IT and associated infrastructure to allow the Casablanca bourse to become a hub for the North African region.
In meetings with Ministers and Morocco’s national business organisation, opportunities for UK companies were showcased in energy, legal services, and financial services and there was much interest in learning from the UK in fields such as PPP for transport projects, banking sector reform, and education, training and qualifications. Related to the latter, one output of our MoU with the CFC has been an agreement with the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment to provide training and qualifications in Morocco.
Morocco has an ambitious programme of legislative change in the pipeline and part of this is the draft law on “participative finance.” As in some other countries there are slight concerns over the use of terms such as “Islamic Finance” or “Sharia compliant finance”. I suspect there are also some concerns in Morocco over the concept generally. So there was much interest in the conference I spoke at, with an audience of over 200 actively taking part. One of the other speakers on the panel was from the Moroccan Central Bank and it was heartening to see him receiving almost exactly the same questions as I have seen put to the UK regulator by our members!
The audience was surprised to learn of the size and depth of the Islamic Finance industry in the UK, not just in financial services, banking or fund management but also in the legal, professional and educational sectors. The soon to be issued sovereign sukuk (in which TheCityUK members played a large part in convincing HMG that it was viable) and Government consultations on Sharia compliant student loans and liquid assets were also of interest. The audience also had a rather traditional view of Islamic finance, so recent developments in the UK such as a Takaful model to provide cover for major risks (based at Lloyd’s of London) and the UK’s first Sharia certified investment into the solar energy sector that qualifies for the Government’s Enterprise Investment Scheme were new concepts for the audience to consider. In the networking afterwards and since I got back I have received a constant stream of enquiries about the UK’s Islamic Finance sector.
It was interesting to see how close Morocco is to Europe –geographically about the same distance from Spain as England is from France, and yet how different it remains.
I watched England quietly exit the World Cup in a very cosmopolitan bar in a brand new Sofitel Hotel part of the Casablanca Port redevelopment. It was very smart and modern and I could have been anywhere in London. I was surrounded by Europeans, Moroccans, Americans and Saudis, watching the football, eating, drinking and smoking. Then I realised I could not remember the last time I was in a restaurant when you could eat and smoke!
As part of the Lord Mayor’s visit I was privileged to attend a dinner granted by The King and hosted by the Foreign Minister at His Majesty’s guest palace in Rabat and most of the Moroccan Cabinet were present. During the meal I wondered if the UK Cabinet ever sat together to honour a visiting delegation.
I also wondered what would happen if I asked for the vegetarian option as we had five main courses of meat and one of fish…! I am sure the hosts could have provided one as the raw materials were there and there was a willingness to ensure the visitors were well catered for. And for me that about sums up my visit - abundant raw materials, the people of Morocco and a willingness and enthusiasm to engage.
Finally, I should add my thanks to Ilham Bennis and her team at the British Chamber of Commerce of Morocco in Casablanca for arranging my visit. They have recently been awarded a contract to provide services to UKTI in Morocco. I have worked with the Chamber many times and I cannot commend them highly enough.
Given that today sees the most important European Elections ever, there could be not better time to talk about the UK’s place in the EU. Let me encourage you all to vote – as your conscience determines – but do make time.
As the leading cross-sectoral body for our industry, TheCityUK has been setting out the view of our sector on the EU-UK relationship. It is our role at TheCityUK to make sure that the practitioner voice on the EU debate is heard loudly and clearly, in the UK, the EU and in the international arena.
We are at a moment of transition between the old and new European Parliamentary and Commission mandates. The current mandate has focused on reform and stability following the financial crisis but in the next 5 years, the task will be to create an ‘agenda for competitiveness’ that enables the EU to deliver the jobs and growth we need. It is important that financial and related professional services engage in a dialogue with policymakers about our industry’s role in delivering solutions to the challenges facing Europe that directly meet that competitiveness challenge.
Last night I shared a platform with the Foreign Secretary at the FCO Leadership Conference reception. In my speech I set out why what the FCO does is so valuable and why it makes a difference to the UK’s business interests.
On Monday we launched our most significant round of EU research yet, to a 200 strong audience at Clifford Chance. Speakers were of the very highest calibre across the industry and Government. Sir Win Bischoff opened proceedings by saying that the EU debate is the most important one our country faces at the moment. He revealed that all alternatives to EU membership considered in the reports being launched would be costly for business and finance, risking damage to the UK through uncertainty, reduced market access and loss of influence.
Legislators reached a deal on the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM), the second phase of the Banking Union, after sixteen hours of negotiation that began on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 March and ended with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble being roused shortly before dawn to give his blessing to the agreement. Subject to final approval, the text will now be put to a plenary vote on 15 April.
Friday 14 February saw a TheCityUK hat-trick, with the London launch of the Atlantic Council’s Report "The Danger of Divergence: Transatlantic Financial Reform & the G20 Agenda". Coming after the Brussels launch in the European Parliament (12 February) and the earlier launch on Capitol Hill in Washington DC (29 January) this third launch event (at Thomson-Reuters, Canary Wharf) was the culmination of a concerted effort between the Atlantic Council (as producers of the Report) and Thomson-Reuters and TheCityUK (as joint sponsors) to ensure maximum attention for a timely contribution to transatlantic debate.
Heralded by good tidings (“Whitehall studies see benefits of Europe”) in the day’s Financial Times, last Friday saw the publication of the Reports arising from the Second Semester of the Government’s Review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU. These were – after some delay – eight of the expected reports, covering the Internal Market (free movement of goods); Asylum & Immigration; Trade & Investment; Environment; Transport; Research & Development; Tourism, Culture & Sport; and Civil Justice. One remaining report - Internal Market (free movement of persons) – is not being published yet, and is said to be likely to be unveiled in some weeks or months, maybe coinciding with the release of Third Semester Reports.
The home of Senatorial inquiries for over fifty years was the site of TheCityUK’s first presentation on Capitol Hill. Unlike the venue of last month’s TheCityUK evidence session at the House of Lords, United States Senate Room SD-562 was one of the first purpose-built, press and TV-friendly, hearing rooms of its kind in the world.