Dubai: One of the silver linings from the dark cloud of the credit crisis is, thankfully, fewer Islamic finance conferences, as the global downturn weeded out those entities that were in it just for the money.

There are a handful of conference organisers, and their contribution needs to be acknowledged for their commitment. The major Islamic conference organisers have macro programmes spread over two days and include Euromoney (UK), Mega (Bahrain), IIR ME (Dubai), and CERT (Malaysia).

One of the most innovative organisers has been RedMoney Group's Islamic Finance Road Shows staged across the finance hubs, and culminating in their annual event in Malaysia for "Issuers, Equity, Investors".

Much has been written, with unreasonably broad strokes on a keyboard, about "pay to play" at conferences, meaning monetary sponsorship for speaking slots and winning awards. If this does exist, then the fault lies with the sponsoring entities, as an Islamic (oriented) entity's money should be used to promote ethical behaviour, as is written in bylaws of Islamic banks, even in a competitive environment.

But, today, I want to raise the issue of injecting competition into the Islamic finance conference organisers market.

There is conference fatigue and, like the Islamic finance industry, organisers need to be pushed to create more thought-provoking conferences.

They are an important stakeholder in Islamic finance, and now need to put on more interactive programmes (away from powerpoint pitches) with higher-profile keynote speakers (global personalities) in interesting venues packed with Muslim and non-Muslim delegates. There are probably several ways to judge the quality of an Islamic finance event:

  • Sponsorship: If the event is under the patronage of royalty, central bank, Ministry, or an industry body, it usually has many sponsors, as institutions, especially country institutions, want to be seen to be supportive. Here credit must be given to His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai (for IIFF), Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, Prime Minister of Bahrain, (WIBC), and Bank Negara Malaysia for their support.
  • Attendance: After the keynote and opening remarks are concluded on day one in the morning session, there is usually a drop in attendance, especially in the front rows (VIPs) and back rows (media). The key issue is keeping the audience engaged on the second day of the event, hence, pleasing the sponsors and speakers.
  • Speakers: It's all about the keynote speakers, the high-level government or private sector person or major sponsor, as they are the major anchors for attracting sponsors and speakers. The enlightened organisers usually have a recognised person connected to the industry or an academic (usually from the West), as most cannot afford US President Bill Clinton's speaking fees.
  • Awards: Almost all major Islamic finance conferences have awards at gala dinners for best in their category, "Banker of the Year", "Lifetime Contribution", and so on. Some of the awards are done by voting (via internet, like a popularity contest). Others are by judges (names sometimes not disclosed), others by entities writing in to the organiser (winners' criteria sometimes not disclosed).
  • Programme: In theory, the programme should attract speakers, which should attract delegates, and hence, good opportunities for sponsor exposure. But one too many conferences dilutes programme quality and results in conference fatigue.
  • Venue: The usual suspects include: London, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur, each attractive for their central location, numerous flights, the ease of obtaining a visa and the quality of hotels. But, organisers need to look at new venues as there is also conference venue fatigue.

Sami awards

Now, having been involved in Islamic finance conferences for more than a decade, I would suggest awards for Islamic finance conferences. I would call them the Sami (Sharia Adherence Marketing of Industry) Awards, and include the above categories.

As the industry players are constantly vying for awards, why not have conference organisers compete for best venue, programme, awards dinner, keynote speaker, attendance, and sponsorships.

Some venue suggestions could be Sharm Al Shaikh, Egypt; Bangkok, Thailand; Cape Town, South Africa; Tibet; Beijing, China; Sao Paulo, Brazil or even a three-day cruise on the Bosporus, Turkey as no one could leave after the keynote speech. These are places that need to hear (or hear more) about another form of financing and investing in the post-crisis era.

Some suggestions for keynote speakers include: Colin Powell (this could be his redemption, as there are no weapons of mass destruction in Islamic finance), US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who could follow up on President Obama's Cairo speech on reaching out to the Muslim world), Nicolas Sarkozy (as France wants to be an Islamic finance hub), the managing director of Kazanah, Azman Mokthar, (a sovereign wealth fund with exposure to Islamic finance) or Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi (as I'm just interested in what the colonel has to say).

While today we raise issues concerning Islamic finance conference organisers, tomorrow we need to have Sami Awards in the name of progress and accountability for an important industry stakeholder.

The writer is Global Head of Islamic Finance at Thomson Reuters. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect that of his organisation or Gulf News.