Friday, November 12, 2010

Facebook threatens Omani marriage brokers with redundancy

Last Updated: Nov 12, 2010

MUSCAT // Matchmakers in Oman are facing stiff competition from social networking sites such as Facebook.

Until recently, matchmakers had a corner here on the marriage-brokering market, navigating the complex ties of kin and tribe to arrange the nuptials of two young people who are not in love or may even have never met. Their services were invaluable in a culture where it is taboo for two young people to court in public or even meet alone before marriage.

But now Omani youth are increasingly logging on to social networking websites to find romance, and even a spouse. Popular sites such as Facebook allow them to sidestep matchmakers - typically elderly women - giving them the privacy and freedom to cultivate relationships that sometimes lead to marriage.

Reem al Hinai, 27, a customer service executive working for a telecommunications company in Muscat, said: "If you cannot flirt face-to-face because of parental restrictions, then Facebook can do it for you at a distance. In some cases, it leads to marriage to a person of your choice."

Ms al Hinai met her husband 18 months ago on Facebook. They logged on and "talked" for hours every day before they met secretly three months later at a friend's house. They were married seven months later.

Nabil al Hadidi, 17, says Facebook is a winning proposition for romance-seeking teenagers looking to escape parental control.

"You stay in the good books of mum and dad, while having fun with your girlfriend. Who knows? I might even marry her one day," Ms al Hadidi said said.

Statistics from Oman's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority show more than a third of Oman's internet users, or 2.5 million web subscribers, have a Facebook account.

The authority does not maintain statistics on the age group or gender of the users. But Salim al Rashdi, 36, a former networking engineer for the agency, estimated that more than half are under the age of 25.

"It is the only place where a girl and a boy can find a match away from public scrutiny for a potential marriage," he said.

Some parents approve of cyber-romance, saying its saves the embarrassment of their children being seen courting in public places. Others are realistic, too, pointing out that there is little they can do to stop it. Still others say it is the results that matter.

Khalaf al Mansoori, 56, a health inspector, said: "It is foolish to oppose it if the outcome is going to be a long and happy marriage. Besides, it is done discreetly and out of the public gaze." To be sure, some parents are furious about a technology they say encourages their children to veer away from traditional values.

Younis al Haddabi said internet courting and face-to-face meetings for marriage-age youth were equally unacceptable. "It is immoral, and we should not encourage it," said Mr al Haddabi, 62 and a property broker. He advocates the blocking of websites such as Facebook to prevent the corruption of young minds.

Mr al Mansoori said that was "going over the top". Instead, "these young people should be praised for respecting local traditions and at the same time courting discreetly to save face for their parents".

Despite the increasing popularity of social networking websites, matchmakers feel in no danger of losing out to digital technology and becoming obsolete.

One of the practitioners of traditional matchmaking, Fatma Fallahy, 75, said: "Only the small minority choose to marry that way. Matchmaking still dominates our marriages in Oman." However, Ms Hinai, the young business executive, says that while traditional matchmaking still holds sway in Oman, it will eventually succumb.

"What keeps two people together in a marriage is shared values and principles, and the internet gives them the opportunity to discover each other before they make the decision," she said.

Mr al Rashdi, who married a woman from his own tribe in an arranged marriage, said neither the matchmaker nor the computer are foolproof.

"In arranged marriages, you rely on the matchmaker to give you a good match. Sometimes they get it horribly wrong. On the other hand, meeting your spouse on the internet can backfire since some people try to impress one another to make an impression. My suggestion is that you do what you think is right for you," Mr al Rashdi said.

Gulf losing edge to Malaysia on Islamic finance

From Australia to South Africa, governments are scrambling to change the law to accommodate the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry, whose avoidance of toxic debt has looked increasingly attractive since the global crisis.

But in the Gulf Arab region, birthplace of Islam and cradle of Islamic finance, governments have taken a more passive approach, which experts say is slowing the industry's growth.

"Aside from Malaysia, Sudan and Iran, no government has really owned the Islamic finance project," Humayon Dar, chief executive of London-based sharia advisory and structuring firm BMB Islamic, said.

In Malaysia, there is a national sharia council that sets rules for Islamic financial institutions. Rules are standardised under the central bank, which has made an active push towards supporting Islamic finance.

In the first three quarters of 2010, the Malaysian government accounted for 62.5 percent of all Islamic bonds, or sukuk, issuances globally, valued at $18.4bn, according to Thomson Reuters data. By comparison, not one sovereign sukuk came out of the Gulf Arab region during the same period.

Saudi Arabia's laws, by definition, require organisations to adhere to sharia, a set of Islamic legal principles that include a ban on interest. Its central bank does not even differentiate between conventional and Islamic banking.

Yet the growth of Islamic banking in the kingdom, the Gulf Arab region's biggest market, is hindered by the lack of clear laws, a 2009 report by Blominvest Bank, the investment banking arm of Lebanon's Blom Bank Group, said.

Many Islamic lenders, for instance, are wary of providing mortgages given the lack of clarity in Saudi Arabia over their ability to foreclose on properties in default.

Lawyers and bankers say these concerns are putting pressure on Saudi housing demand and prices. A Saudi mortgage law has been in the works for over a decade but it's still unclear when it will come to pass.

Even in the United Arab Emirates, lawyers say some of the government's laws effectively work against Islamic financial transactions, especially those related to ijara sukuk, one of the most common forms of Islamic financing.

Ijara sukuk involves a transfer of tangible assets -- most commonly real estate -- from one party to the next as Islamic law does not allow for debt or interest payments. It can best be described as an operating lease in which the owner leases an asset to the client.

"The issue lies with the high fees related to the transfer of land in an ijara and investors wonder if the cost is going to be significant enough to hurt their potential returns," Nabil Issa, partner at international law firm King and Spalding, said.

"The UK and France have encouraged sharia-compliant transactions. The UAE must waive the fees to make Islamic finance easier."

The financial crisis, which caused a rash of corporate defaults, disputes and insolvencies in Dubai, exposed weaknesses in regulation and resulted in a loss of faith among businesses.

That has prompted some companies to register in the Dubai International Financial Centre despite the higher costs because the financial free zone has been allowed to self-legislate.

DIFC has created a legal framework that blends the best practices of leading jurisdictions, reassuring companies in case of default or business disputes.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if the UAE made a push to change its current laws to be more transparent and accommodating, especially when it comes to land registration fees, we would see more Islamic finance growth and more sukuk here," said one attorney, who asked to remain anonymous.

"There's so much pride in the industry that the rest of the world is making changes, but not enough work at home to support the needs of Islamic finance."

Bahrain, to its credit, has positioned itself as a hub for Islamic finance in the region and the central bank provides a regulatory framework for Islamic financial institutions, based on the guidelines issued by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI).

Bahrain-based AAOIFI is the closest thing Islamic finance has to an international independent regulator to set standards.

The central bank also has rules covering capitalisation, risk management, financial crime and disclosure and is pushing to train Islamic scholars to help the industry grow faster.

But Islamic finance faces hurdles in other markets in the Middle East and North Africa, where barriers to entry remain.

In Oman, home to about 3.4 million Muslims, the central bank's policies discourage the establishment and expansion of Islamic financial institutions.

Egypt is another case in point. It is the sixth-biggest Muslim nation with 80 million people, but only three to four percent of its $193bn banking industry is Islamic.

While Egypt's financial regulator sees the implementation of sukuk rules by the first quarter of 2011, some analysts say it is too early to call how it will help Islamic finance grow.

Part of the blame lies with 1980s ponzi schemes that claimed to be Islamic and left millions of Egyptians wary of Islamic banking. After the exposure of the schemes, Egypt's foremost Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, issued a controversial ruling allowing for interest, as long as it was not excessive, which essentially sidelined the need for Islamic finance.

Analysts say fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes in creating an Islamic state, could use Islamic finance for political gain have discouraged the government from adopting laws to foster the sector.

By contrast, Australia's national taxation board is planning to meet in November to revamp its laws to get rid of double stamp duties. In South Africa, the government is looking to amend its tax laws to help grow the industry, even though Muslims only make up two percent of the population.

"The Muslim community in South Africa was at a disadvantage," Amman Muhammad, managing director at Absa Islamic banking, said.

"We have gotten regulators to understand our plight."