Small and medium-sized Islamic banks may need to merge if they want to become bigger regional players capable of filling the funding hole left by shrinking Western banks, the head of Islamic finance at Deutsche Bank, told Reuters.
"There are mismatch challenges," Salah Jaidah said on the sidelines of the Euromoney Islamic finance summit in London.
"Their size, their appetite for long term funding, their ability to finance at competitive pricing. I see this as a big challenge and not happening already now," he added.
Most Islamic banks in the Middle East and North African region hold less than $13 billion in assets. Conventional banks, by comparison, hold an average of $38 billion in assets, a report by Ernst and Young estimated.
In the past, said Jaidah, it was the international banks which led oil and gas development and infrastructure projects in the region because they had the balance sheet, pricing mechanisms and appetite for long term funding.
Whilst Islamic banks might not immediately be able to face the challenge, Jaidah believes that within time they will be able to reposition themselves.
"They might raise capital, might have more competitive prices and ultimately there might be some mergers between small-to-medium sized banks who want to become bigger players regionally."
The Gulf Cooperation Council area has over 100 Islamic banks, ranging from Al Rajhi Bank of Saudi Arabia with a $25 billion market cap to small unlisted lenders, a Deutsche Bank report published in November said.
Deutsche Bank selected a list of potential winners which included Al Rajhi -- the world's largest Islamic bank -- and Alinma bank in Saudia Arabia, AMMB Holdings in Malaysia and Bank Mandiri in Indonesia.
The idea of a so-called Islamic "mega-bank" has already been touted in the region by Bahrain-based Al Baraka banking group .
READY TO REPOSITION
Islamic finance prohibits the lending of money for interest and other activities such as speculation that violate religious principles.
Deutsche Bank, which first established a presence in the UAE in 1999, says that despite the current global economic turmoil there are still opportunities within the industry.
"With the changes taking place in MENA and our eagerness to reposition ourselves as a lead player within the industry, I expect that the portion of profit and earnings will be lucrative and will grow year after year," said Jaidah.
He sees encouraging signs from Oman, home to around 3 million Muslims, where the central bank last year reversed its secular stance on finance, allowing Islamic banks and subsidiaries to establish themselves in the country.
There might also be new geographic openings in North Africa, following the upheaval in the region and countries such as Turkey where the government plans its first-ever issue of Islamic bonds this year.
Globally, Islamic bond issuance rose to $23.3 billion last year from $13.9 billion in 2010, according to Thomson Reuters data.
On the corporate front, Deutsche Bank, which has advised on deals including Saudi Aramco Total Refining and Petrochemical Company's (SATORP) $1 billion sukuk also sees more non-Islamic corporates tapping Islamic finance.
"Now more than ever we see a growing demand from conventional corporates for sharia structures," said Jaidah.
Dubai shopping mall developer Majid Al Futtaim, which is the sole franchisee for Carrefour in the Gulf, hopes to raise between $350 million and $500 million from its debut sukuk offering.
Emirates airlines said it is looking at the Islamic finance market to fund aircraft deliveries as international banks back out of plane deals. Goldman Sachs is also planning a $2 billion sukuk.
Dana Gas has appointed Deutsche Bank to advise on its $920 million convertible sukuk, three sources told Reuters in January, in a move to address investor concern over how it will repay the Islamic bond.
Jaidah would not comment on the deal.
Deutsche Bank estimated in a report in November that Islamic finance would almost double to $1.8 trillion in assets by 2016 as stagnant conventional lending pushed companies to seek alternative financing methods.