London Islamic Bank eyes MidEast expansion

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Humphrey Percy, CEO, London Islamic Bank.

Humphrey Percy, CEO, London Islamic Bank.

Sharia-compliant Bank of London and the Middle East (BLME) is targeting the thousands of rich Gulf residents who have ties to the UK to boost its corporate and private banking business.

Britain's largest standalone sharia bank was set up in London in 2006 and does not have a presence in the Middle East, although expansion into this region was always part of the long-term plan.

It is now awaiting regulatory approval to start operations in the Gulf, initially with a representative office this year, and a branch or subsidiary in the longer term, CEO Humphrey Percy told Reuters in an interview.

"The premise on which we set up BLME, which was to send skills and products and services and human capital in both directions, between London and the Middle East ... is just as valid now as in 2006," said Percy.

The bank, which fully complies with Islamic principles, including a ban on interest, was founded in 2006 with the backing of Kuwaiti investors, including Boubyan Bank.

The UK is the largest Islamic finance centre in Europe, with US$19bn out of global assets of US$1.7 trillion and is home to five fully sharia-compliant banks, data from the UK Islamic Finance Secretariat (UKIFS) estimates.

Whilst a fraction of the size of the conventional banking sphere, BLME, which offers corporate banking and wealth management, will look to tap into the pools of investment money in the oil-rich Gulf that have been relatively untouched by the global financial crisis.

It has assets under management of around GBP£100m (US$159.2m) across three funds.

Earlier this year, the bank launched a property advisory service for private clients mostly domiciled in the Middle East, looking for advice on acquisitions as well as help with financing.

"At the moment the asset class of choice in the Middle East is property, in particular central London property," said Percy.

Although weathering the global financial crisis of 2008 with relative stability, the bank posted its first loss in 2011, after a GBP£14.6m loss on a loan to a Turkish manufacturing business.

"This particular client chose very much the eleventh hour, literally the last week of the year, not to repay us and in those circumstances the board felt it had no alternative but to make a full provision and pursue them robustly in 2012," said Percy.

Stripping out impairment charges, operating profit for 2011 would have risen 10 percent on the previous year to GBP£4.35m.

The bank grew customer deposits by 128 percent and improved its balance sheet by 13 percent to 807 million pounds in 2011, although Percy admits the strength of the UK market will be affected by the euro zone crisis.

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