Oman rules may spur Islamic finance reforms

January 31, 2013 - 4:13:55 am

SYDNEY: Oman’s new Islamic banking rules could encourage the development of a larger pool of Shariah scholars and ultimately help to raise operating standards for them around the world, according to bankers and scholars.

Last month, the sultanate’s central bank released an extensive Islamic banking rulebook which included provisions for Shariah scholars, such as fit-and-proper criteria and term limits on scholars’ appointment to Shariah boards, which decide whether products and activities obey Islamic principles. 

Oman is the last country in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to introduce Islamic banking, but the level of detail in the rules could help set it apart from the others, and even give it some influence over global trends in the industry.

“I admire the positive spirit behind many articles in the law, which aims to achieve a higher level of good governance and avoidance of conflicts,” said Washington-based scholar Muddassir Siddiqui, president and chief executive of ShariahPath Consultants LLC.

“Oman came from behind but it is now among the very few jurisdictions to introduce such a comprehensive set of rules. I am sure it will inspire others to follow.”

The objectives behind the rules include enlarging the pool of qualified scholars as well as addressing issues of scholar capacity and conflict of interest, Siddiqui added.

Capacity refers to the amount of time scholars can devote to each of their board appointments; multiple commitments raise concerns that scholars may not be able to carry out their supervisory roles effectively.

In an attempt to build a larger talent pool, Oman’s rules state that scholars can only be appointed for three-year terms and serve a maximum of two consecutive terms, thus requiring banks to hire new scholars periodically.

Such term limits are rare in Islamic finance, where scholar appointments have often been considered long-term or even permanent. “I believe this is a good practice as it will provide an avenue to more scholars to share their expertise in the deliberation of a Shariah supervisory board (SSB),” Mohamad Akram Laldin, Executive Director at the Malaysian-based International Shariah Research Academy for Islamic Finance, said.

Both Laldin and Siddiqui are members of the sharia standards committee at the Bahrain-based Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), a major standard-setting body.

AAOIFI, recognising that lengthy appointments “could lead to a close relationship which could be perceived to be a threat to independence and objectivity”, recommends that institutions rotate at least one Shariah board member every five years. But Oman’s rules go further by applying term limits to all members.

Oman’s rules struck a chord in the Islamic finance community because loose regulation of scholars is acknowledged by many people in the industry to be a major weakness, and an obstacle to growth.

There have been a series of calls for reform in the industry and AAOIFI has said it will conduct consultations on how Shariah boards operate. 

A final draft of its conclusions is not expected to be ready before the end of this year at the earliest, however, and analysts warned that it remained to be seen whether Oman’s approach would be adopted in other jurisidictions where entrenched interests might be reluctant to change.

Reuters

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