Interview: Mr. Hussain Mazhar, Head of the Islamic Banking Group at UBL

KHALIL AHMED, Senior Correspondent
Mar 12 - 18, 2007

PAGE: Please tell us something about your professional life?

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: I have graduated from the Institute of Business Administration and have worked both in the public and private sector organisations in Pakistan, including Navy. After doing MBA I joined Pakistan Tobacco Company. Later, I went to Dubai to join Mashreq Bank. After working for 3 Ω years there, I joined Saudi British Bank in Riyadh and worked there for 4 years. This is where I was entrusted with the task of developing Islamic products for the bank. Later I joined ABN Amro in Dubai to set up Islamic businesses for the bank in Saudi Arabia and UAE. I came back to Pakistan in 2006 to head the newly established UBL Ameen Islamic Banking.

PAGE: UBL Ameen offers a range of Riba-free and Shariah-compliant banking products. Would you please elaborate?

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: UBL Ameen was launched on 23rd December 2006 in Karachi. We offer not only a range of deposit products including those with Riba-free returns to the customers but also Sharia-compliant facilities/ advances for all segments including consumers, corporates, SME and trade.

PAGE: UBL is one of the largest local banks in the country, with a network of over 1000 branches and a customer base of over 2.8million. How many branches offer Islamic banking services?

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: Currently we have an exclusive Islamic branch in Karachi on M. A. Jinnah Road (opposite Numaish) and four more will be launched soon including one each in Lahore, Faisalabad, Peshawar and Sialkot. In addition, we are offering Ameen products from five UBL conventional branches in Karachi. Our distribution strategy is two-pronged with a number of exclusive Islamic branches as well as Ameen 'windows' in several UBL conventional branches.

PAGE: Would you please tell us something about your advertisement campaign?

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: Our advertisement campaign has only two purposes, (1) Announcing our launch and (2) communicating our philosophy and positioning. By the Grace of Almighty, the response to our campaign was beyond our expectations.

We are the first conventional bank which has separately branded its Islamic product-line as 'Ameen' that literally means 'trust-worthy'. UBL has built excellent trust of its customers through a long history of service. Therefore, the name 'Ameen' was the obvious choice. The UBL swoosh and the blue colour represent our affiliation with UBL family, the colour green is the differentiator signifying Islamic services, the rose vine motif is from Badshahi mosque and giving our logo a Pakistani flavour and lastly the tag line 'Sab Ke Liye' describes our philosophy of reaching out and welcoming customers from all religions, sects, ethnicity, gender and age.

We took a couple of bold steps in our campaign, specifically the use of background music and human figures. Both these decisions were taken to present UBL Ameen as a modern and yet ethical product. We believe that it is our duty to present to our customers the Islamic way of life. The decency and piety of a mother or a female teacher in Hijab is presented in a very respectable manner and stands out as 'good' when compared with a female model in any other advertisement. The music used was composed by Ruhail Hayat, which strongly presents Pakistani image with an uplifting and soothing Raag that makes one happy rather than get up and dance.

We wanted our advertisement to be modern yet ethical - addressing all, touching and welcoming. We avoided all Arab symbols like arches, swords, crescents, date palms, etc. and used a lot of Pakistani symbols like an ethnic crib, a decorated truck, Raag music, Lahore Fort, etc. We believe that Islamic banking advertisement doesn't have to necessarily depict Arabic culture since Islam has universal appeal and not just Middle-Eastern.

The result of all this thought process and meticulous attention to details was a great advertisement campaign that was very well received and appreciated.

PAGE: Please brief us about United Composite Islamic Fund (UCIF).

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: UCIF is an Islamic Investment fund launched by UBL Fund Managers (a subsidiary of UBL). The product is endorsed by renowned Sharia scholars namely Mufti Hasaan Kalim and Mufti Mohammed Najeeb Khan. It is an open-ended fund in that investors can participate at any time. The fund is invested in shares of Sharia-compliant companies by our experts in UBL Fund Managers who are experienced market players, ensuring excellent returns on customers' investment. This product provides excellent opportunity to customers demanding Riba-free returns on their investment.

PAGE: What are your future plans?

HUSSAIN MAZHAR: UBL Ameen plans to offer all segments already mentioned earlier. In addition to the products currently being offered by any Islamic bank, we are poised to offer innovative solutions for micro-finance as well. Our current plan is to test the market with five exclusive branches in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and Sialkot and five 'windows' in Karachi. The results of this test environment will guide us in our future expansion plans. The potential of offering Islamic products from all 1000 plus branches of UBL is phenomenal and quickly achievable also. However, we believe in doing the 'right thing the first time'.

We have purchased a separate IT system for Ameen business that is built specifically for Islamic banking products. Usually, the conventional IT systems are tweaked to serve Islamic banking needs but these solutions actually restrict innovative Islamic product development. In addition, our independent system ensures online separation of Islamic business from our conventional business in real-time and therefore provides ease in generating separate financial reports for UBL Ameen. The system is called 'MAL by Path Solutions a company based in Beirut and Kuwait with offices in Bahrain and Dubai as well. This system is being used by 35-plus institutions for Islamic financing needs.

We are also the first bank in Pakistan to form a panel of renowned Sharia advisors including our dedicated Sharia advisor. The panel ensures quick product development, international appeal and innovation. The panel comprises scholars from different schools of thought thus ensuring our products' acceptability for all.