Perfumed Islamic Bank Cards Target Women’s Rising Clout

Islamic banks are going to new lengths to grab the market share offered by an increasing number of working women in the Gulf region.

Al Hilal Bank PJSC, a Shariah-compliant lender owned by the Abu Dhabi government, has been marketing a perfumed credit card since last month to lure the rising number of women in employment in the United Arab Emirates. The Laha card, whose Arabic name means “for her,” comes with a bottle of perfume and has a special section to hold the fragrance. Oman’s Bank Nizwa SAOG began specialized financial services for women in October, while Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank PJSC created its own women’s credit card in June.

“The woman’s segment is definitely an area of focus for Islamic banks and will continue to be,” Ashruff Jamall, the Dubai-based head of the Islamic finance division at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC, said by phone on Feb. 2. Al Hilal’s card “should go down well with the market. Other banks might come out with more products,” he said.

The efforts highlight the growing economic power of women in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, where the proportion of the female population in the labor market jumped to an average 38 percent from 28 percent in the two decades through 2013, according to World Bank data. Women’s net worth in the GCC may grow as much as 15 percent to about $258 billion in the 10 years through 2023, according to Kuwait Finance Centre, an asset manager and investment bank.

Loyal Customers

Al Hilal has seen “a lot of demand” for its card, according to Mohamed Zaqout, head of personal banking at the lender. In the GCC, the majority of women have their own bank accounts, according to a PwC study published in October. Female customers are less “prone to switching banks” than men, Jamall said this week.

“One of our missions is ensuring Islamic banking caters to all the segments, including modern U.A.E. women,” Al Hilal’s Zaqout said by phone from Abu Dhabi on Jan. 26. “The Islamic market is growing and we wanted to offer something unique to this important sector.”

The female focus is not necessarily new. Dubai Islamic Bank PJSC, the biggest Shariah-compliant lender in the U.A.E., has had a segment of the business called Johara dedicated to women since 2000, and currently has seven exclusive branches. The women’s business is an important and “very profitable” unit for the bank, Chief Executive Officer Adnan Chilwan said at a press event in Dubai on Jan. 25, declining to provide figures.

“The women sector has been comparatively neglected in the past and women are now becoming increasingly more independent in respect to looking after their own banking needs,” Jamall said by e-mail yesterday. “It has become a natural area of focus for Islamic banks.”

Bank Nizwa

Oman’s Bank Nizwa in October introduced a ladies’ banking service in response to what it called a “dramatic increase” in the percentage of women in the workforce. Female workers climbed to 29 percent from 18 percent in the two decades through 2013, as the country’s population almost doubled, according to World Bank data.

In the U.A.E., the gains were more dramatic. About 47 percent of women held jobs in 2013, compared with 29 percent two decades earlier. The country’s population grew more than four-fold in the period.

Limited Roles

While women are present in greater numbers in the workforce, their roles remain limited. In most developing countries, less than 10 percent of senior positions are held by women, and in the majority of Middle Eastern nations it is under 2 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

In Abu Dhabi, where Al Hilal Bank is based, about 16 percent of the total workforce was female in 2013, according to data provided by the government. Women, including Emirati and foreign nationals, accounted for about a quarter of the population in the U.A.E. in 2010, according to government data.

“GCC women are being empowered and have the liberty and influence to make decisions on their own,” Muhammad Ashfaq-Ur-Rehman, an independent Islamic finance consultant who previously worked at Standard Chartered Plc, said by e-mail on Feb. 2. “Any offering catering to women would certainly elevate the performance and increase the acceptance level.”

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