UAE: Say hello to, the Islamic answer to Amazon

– The Guardian

Online market platform will specifically cater to Muslim consumers looking for halal products and services
Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, told the World Islamic Economic Forum that the halal industry is 'crying out for connectivity'. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS
Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, told the World Islamic Economic Forum that the halal industry is ‘crying out for connectivity’. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS

First there was Amazon and its ubiquitous internet retail model. Next came Alibaba, a Chinese behemoth valued at more than $200bn. Now the Islamic world has launched its own competitor to the great global online giants, in the hope of cornering the mouthwatering trillion-dollar Muslim consumer market. was unveiled by the Malaysian prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, at the World Islamic Economic Forum. “Zilzar” means earthquake in Arabic.

The global market for halal products and services – not just foods but anything that conforms to Islamic rules, including financial services, is currently estimated to be worth $1.6tn and forecast to reach almost $2.5tn by 2018. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, a population growing at twice the rate of the global average.

Like Amazon and Alibaba, Zilzar provides a platform for businesses and consumers to sell to each other. Its core markets are entrepreneurs, youth and small and medium enterprises.

Its chief executive Rushdi Siddiqui, predicts that within two to three months the site will have more halal suppliers than Alibaba.

“I am going after their suppliers,” he says. “We want to shake up the marketplace. This is about empowering the consumer and creating employment – people can sell their own products. Technology is a great equaliser. Aid has not helped Muslims in emerging markets. I was trying to feed them; now I am teaching them to fish.”

Razak told the Forum: “The environment and conditions are perfect for this partnership for economic growth. The halal industry is made up of small and medium enterprises who are globally dispersed and crying out for connectivity.”

Although it is dominated by financial and insurance services, other major sectors in the global halal industry include fashion, food, tourism, logistics and recreation as well as pharmaceuticals, vaccines and cosmetics.

Halal is an Arabic term meaning “permissible”or “lawful” under Islamic rules. Products should not contain alcohol or pork traces or promote gambling. The tourism industry provides Muslims with access to prayer facilities, halal food and gender sensitive recreational activities such as women only pools and beaches.

Consumers on Zilzar can trade products from prayer beads and electronic Qu’rans to hijabs and films. All its sellers and products are verified by certification bodies around the world.

But Jumaatun Azmi, founding director of the World Halal Forum based in Malaysia, says that problems of accreditation and authenticity persist.

“When I was in China, I actually came across pork labelled as halal. The industry is so fragmented,” she says. “There are a lot of problems in terms of proper procedures, standards and implementation. Even within the Muslim world, people argue over the definition of halal – for example there are different schools of thought on whether you should stun animals.”

Certification within the halal industry is largely left to the free market. Estimates of the number of halal certification bodies worldwide range from 300 to 3000, including mosques, governments, Islamic organisations and individuals. This is most evidently an issue in the halal food market, estimated to be worth $1tn. The leading exporters are the US, Brazil, the Netherlands and Germany.

Azmi set up the World Halal Forum to bring together international stakeholders in the industry from governments and producers to scientists and Islamic scholars.

“We want to help people to understand halal in a universal way, along the lines of the fair trade movement and eco movement,” he said. “This is not just about religion, it is about animal rights and health and fairness. The kosher industry has been able to do this for a long time – the kosher label is associated with good health and quality products. Halal stands for similar values but it doesn’t have the image.”

Other non-Muslim countries are now recognising the value of the halal industry. Spain in now planning to create a global halal hub in the south. and next year Cordoba will play host to an international halal conference.

Tomas Guerrero, researcher at the Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics in Spain says: “A solid bet for the future of the Spanish economy could be reorienting a great part of our production and services towards the halal market. The possibilities are endless; beyond just agribusiness and tourism.”

In June, the UK became the first country outside the Muslim world to issue an Islamic bond. Orders for the bonds, which totalled £200m were 12 times oversubscribed. South Africa and Hong Kong have since followed suit with Luxembourg soon to do the same. An Islamic index has been created on the London Stock Exchange and the UK government is supporting the development of Islamic loans for students and startups.

The Islamic financial sector has experienced 40% annual growth rates over the past decade, with Islamic financial assets estimated at $1.35tn and the potential of Islamic banking assets in core markets to be over $4tn and growing at a rate of 15-20%.

Under Islamic rules, no interest on business dealings can be charged. Transactions must also be based on a real trade or business activities and they must not involve anything forbidden under Sharia law, such as gambling or alcohol.

Speaking at the conference in Dubai, Andrea Leadsom MP and Economic Secretary to the Treasury said: “ I hope we will see billions’ worth of new investments from the Islamic world in a range of sectors in the UK. We want to bring Islamic finance into the mainstream.”