DUBAI, (Reuters) – Emirati housewife Sarah Alzarouni brushed past a group of women clad in floor-length black robes, some with only their eyes showing, to enter through the frosted doors of one of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches.
Clutching a Louis Vuitton bag to match her designer head scarf, Alzarouni greeted the female tellers and bank manager with three kisses on the cheek and sat down to do business.
“I am much more comfortable working with ladies than in a mixed environment,” Alzarouni, 27, said.
“When I come here, I feel like one of them. They understand my needs and I can move freely, not having to always think where I am and whether my (scarf) has moved. As a Muslim, it is really important for me to deal with an Islamic bank. ”
Many affluent Muslim women share Alzarouni’s sentiments and they are increasingly turning to Islamic banks to manage their money. These women are looking beyond basic banking services to sophisticated products to grow their wealth while complying with Islamic principals that include a ban on interest.
According to a report by Boston Consulting Group, women in the Middle East controlled 22 percent, or $500 billion, of the region’s total assets under management in 2009.
Financial institutions in the conservative Gulf Arab region, where many women are reluctant to mix with men outside their families, are tapping into the niche, with women-only bank branches and investment funds mushrooming.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam where unrelated men and women are not allowed to mix, is leading the charge.
Women in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, are believed to be sitting on $11.9 billion in pure cash, according to a report by Al Masah Capital.
The kingdom’s National Commercial Bank has 46 women-only branches — up from two in 1980. Saudi Hollandi Bank 1040.SE plans to increase its women-only branches to 15 from its existing 11.
On the funds front, Saudi-based Al Rajhi Capital launched its Ladies Wealth Management Division earlier this year. That came on top of its Al Jawharah Ladies Fund, which targets Saudi women seeking to make diversified investments.
Cayman Islands-based Mayfair Wealth Management launched the Ameerah fund in the Middle East in 2009, offering advice on investments that are compliant with Islamic principles.
Abu Dhabi-based Al Bashayer Investments, a conventional wealth management firm geared towards women investors, is also looking to launch Islamic products to address the needs of women in the region who prefer investments that are in keeping with their religious beliefs.
Sara Mohamed, chief executive officer of Al Bashayer, said many banks that have created women-only branches have so far limited their services to retail banking accounts, credit cards or loans, rather than helping women to grow their wealth.
“We see a lot of opportunities in the middle market,” Mohamed said. “Women at senior levels who have small children and have a minimum of $250,000 or $100,000 of investible cash set aside and are looking to build their wealth.”
EDUCATING THE MARKET
But experts say more needs to be done to break down the often self-imposed barriers to Gulf Arab women taking an active role in the world of investment and financial markets.
“I’m sure that much more women than we see want to be involved,” said Moza al-Otaiba, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and chief executive of Al Otaiba Holdings.
“A lot of women are not clear about investments. Women are motivated to work and all around the world we see women as bread winners. But there is a barrier they need to cross.”
Many women in the region, like Otaiba, have inherited wealth from their fathers or other family members, and women are active business owners in the Gulf.
A 2007 study from a branch of the World Bank estimated that a third of women-owned businesses in the United Arab Emirates generated over $100,000 a year, as compared to 12 percent of American women-owned companies.
Otaiba, whose business focuses on development projects within the UAE, said that women in the region are looking for products and investments within the Gulf Arab region, because they know those markets and find them accessible and safe.
Industry experts say more women need to participate in the Islamic banking industry at senior levels to help grow products that appeal to a female clientele. But while the finance industry remains a boys club around the world, the glass ceiling is lower in the Middle East.
“The mindset of management and old school guys is that women are only there temporarily and then they leave,” Nida Raza, director of capital markets at Unicorn Investment Bank, said.
“That feeling is exaggerated here in the Gulf. Women just aren’t put into higher roles in Islamic finance here.”
In addition to wealth management, Raza said venture capital funds that invest in women-only businesses, Islamic pension funds and education funds for children would be particularly attractive to women in the Gulf.
Hari Bhambra, senior partner at compliance and client advisory firm Praesidium, said Islamic trust funds would be particularly appealing to women in the region, empowering them to provide for the welfare of their children.
“I think it’s going to take a while but, as we’re seeing more women get into conventional finance, it will naturally transfer to Islamic finance,” Bhambra said.
More investment options would certainly appeal to clients like Alzarouni, who hopes to start her own business and invest in financial products for her three daughters, aged 6, 5 and 10 months.
“I’m thinking of just opening accounts for them right now but maybe in the future, I can help them open a business as well,” Alzarouni said. “Maybe they’ll be future financial managers. Who knows?”