As one of the first conferences to discuss and promote the global Islamic economy, the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) has gained a unique and prestigious position in the Muslim world and beyond. Organized by the Malaysia-headquartered WIEF Foundation, it was first held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, before moving to other cities including Islamabad, Kuwait City, Astana, Dubai, Jakarta, and London.
The main remit of the event, which is the successor of OIC Business Forum, has been to enhance the economic wellbeing of Muslim nations by encouraging trade and business opportunities – not only among themselves, but also with the world at large. Year after year, the forum has helped to package the Muslim world as a lucrative trade and investment collective that is able to attract foreign investors and business partners.
Besides the annual forum, WIEF Foundation is also engaged in capacity-building programmes dedicated to businesswomen, young leaders, and influential thinkers. Additionally, it runs an education trust aimed at garnering resources from the Muslim world to provide education opportunities to the people at large.
Crescent Leaders spoke with Tan Sri Dr Syed Hamid Albar, Chairman of the World Islamic Economic Forum Foundation and a veteran Malaysian politician who has served in numerous ministerial roles, about the foundation’s latest activities and his vision for the forum post-pandemic.
Can you tell us more about the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) Foundation? Who established it, what does it do; and where does its funding come from?
The idea for the WIEF Foundation germinated from the regular meetings of the OIC Business Summit which was globally known as a political forum. We wanted to branch out from purely discussing political topics to something that will contribute more to our progress and development. We wanted to have a forum to discuss Islamic countries and their resources, as well as the potential for networking, exports and imports, and how we can benefit from our economic strengths.
When Malaysia became the chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) [October 17, 2003], I was the foreign minister at that time, and I thought that Malaysia should be the initial starting point for the summit. We organized it then under the OIC banner and we called it the OIC Business Forum. This event attracted political and business leaders. Since we did not have the secretariat or the mechanism, we asked the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) to organize the forum for us. We did that until 2005.
In 2005, we started to think about taking over from ASLI, because OIC sometimes limited our scope for expansion. People thought it was only for Islamic countries and yet we know that our economics and finance go beyond this realm. The platform needed to be widened and expanded. Because of this, we rebranded as World Islamic Economic Forum and detached it from the OIC. However, because it was born out of the OIC, we still have a very strong relationship with the OIC.
The WIEF Foundation was incorporated in Malaysia [in 2006] and since then, we’ve been able to organize it in seven countries. We’ve established a lot of pioneering work, discussing topics such as sukuk, Islamic finance, and awqaf. It became very interesting.
We bring in top business and government leaders, so every time it’s organized in Malaysia, the government provides us some funding and grants. Otherwise, our funding would be very much dependent on participants and the sponsorships we get. The Malaysian government is strongly involved in supporting the forum and making sure we organize it in other countries. When we organize it in other countries, the host government would pay a proprietary fee and cover local expenses. So far, it’s been a successful model.
Given that the foundation’s work almost entirely revolves around physical events, how did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your operations?
Our fundamental business comprises the annual conference and roundtable discussions, both which are always well attended. Our largest WIEF was the one we did was in London which attracted more than 2,000 participants.
But the pandemic forced us to go virtual. So, for the last two years, we’ve had to re-orient ourselves and focus on virtual meetings. We were already successful in organizing webinars on topics such as the empowerment of youth and women, and education. So, we held about 20 webinars a year. They received good participation and attracted a large young audience.
Now, we need to rebrand ourselves in light of the post-pandemic era and post-Ukraine-Russia conflict. There must be new input looking at the new phenomena that is taking place in the world. We cannot just continue doing what we were doing before.
We’re going to organize a roundtable in September, the first physical event since the pandemic started, and it will be held in Penang, Malaysia. It will discuss the digital economy, world economic progress post-pandemic, and awqaf, in cooperation with the state government of Penang.
Roundtables are much smaller than the conference, the upcoming one will have around 300 people. But from there on, we hope to be able to follow up [with the annual forum]. The most important aspect is not the discussions themselves, but how we utilize the content of our discussions and turn them into something we can work on and benefit from.
Have you decided on the location and date of the next WIEF?
We haven’t decided yet where we’re going to organize the next WIEF. We’re in discussion with several countries and cities, including Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Turkey and Bangladesh, all who have expressed interest in hosting the forum. Prominent business leaders such as Richard Branson have also expressed interest in participating. We are now weighing various factors, including logistics and participant interest.
What would you say are the Foundation’s biggest achievements since you took the helm in August 2021, which was quite a tough period for everyone?
During the pandemic, we organized more webinars than we have ever done. And we explored very interesting topics, from digital economy, to gaming, to how women can be more productive in their contribution to the economy. We also explored niche areas, such as social enterprises and MSMEs.
I wanted to make sure that even if the WIEF Foundation does not hold physical events, the essence of the forum is not lost, even if it’s in a different format. We are proud of our magazines and journals. We attract academics and businesspeople. We have maintained our global status and we have to make sure there is continued interest; we cannot sit on our laurels.
As a veteran politician who has served as Malaysia’s Minister of Justice, Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, among other distinguished appointments, how does your wealth of experience in government and public policy complement your chairmanship of the WIEF Foundation?
It mainly provides me access to other countries and regions, to other ministers, and to the VIPs of other countries. Because people know me, it makes it easier to carry out my responsibilities and reconnect with people.
In your opinion, to what extent has Islamic finance evolved since the first WIEF in 2005?
The most important thing to note about Islamic finance is that it’s no longer an alien subject. It is now seen as an alternative method of financing and funding, and for economic growth and progress. We don’t have to look solely at a capitalist, western economic system. Islamic finance provides an alternative.
Also, people have become more familiar with Islamic finance and are more willing to make use of it. That’s why London is now one of the great centres of sukuk and other Islamic finance instruments.
You also focus heavily at the WIEF Foundation on bringing together Muslim and non-Muslim communities and building bridges between the two sides. Tell us more about this.
One of the reasons behind our success is that we are not a theological or religious body, so people are not participating because we’re Muslims or non-Muslims. People look at the subjects we’re discussing and find them fundamental to economic growth and progress.
We will continue to be a body that provides a platform for everyone to get together irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, or culture. That in itself is a good selling point for Muslims.