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Islamic Lifestyle
UK attracts Middle Eastern travellers with football and heritage 

The United Kingdom ranked second place in the Top 10 non-OIC destinations in the Global Muslim Travel Index 2021 rankings.

 

Statistics from the British Tourist Authority show that visits to the UK from the Middle East region rose by nearly 10% to 1.27 million in 2019, while total expenditure also rose by 10% to £2.71 billion ($3.6 billion).

Travellers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan made 360,110 visits to the UK in 2019, spending about £453 million ($615 million) over the period, which is 13% higher than 2018.

The UK’s fifth rank in the 2021 Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index highlights the destination’s main attractions. The country scored highest for sport, historic buildings and monuments, contemporary culture and vibrant city life. 

The index measures the national reputation of 60 countries worldwide, based on scores in six categories: tourism, culture, people, immigration-investment, exports and governance.

In 2019, the £1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) spent by visitors who attended a football match during their trip represents 5% of all inbound tourism spending that year. Qatar is the top inbound market for football spending, accounting for £118 million ($160 million). With a spend of £55 million ($75 million), the UAE takes sixth place.

However, with the 2022 FIFA World Cup scheduled in Qatar from 21 November to 18 December, the UK may miss out on some of the football-related spendings from the Middle East this year.

In general, the Global Muslim Travel Index 2021 expects the Muslim travel market to recover up to 80% of 2019 levels (160 million arrivals) by 2023, predicting that tourism will be more personalised with smaller numbers and re-designed visitor experiences.

AbdulMaalik Tailor, a licensed tour guide, has already been applying this concept for 10 years. He founded Halal Tourism Britain in 2012, which specialises in halal food experiences and Muslim history tours.

“The Muslim community actually values history a lot,” Tailor told Salaam Gateway. “Even in the UK, there has been a movement for more people wishing to learn about Muslim heritage in Britain.” Tailor said that since the COVID-19 pandemic, the share of his local clients increased from 50% to 80%.

The oldest physical evidence of Islam and the earliest example of Arabic writing in Britain is a gold coin minted in the 8th century by Anglo Saxon King Offa of Mercia with the Islamic declaration of faith (Shahadah) inscribed on it.

Besides all the tourist attractions the UK has to offer, Tailor sees a greater Muslim friendliness as a competitive advantage compared to other European destinations, stressing the ease of performing prayers as an example.

“There are 2,131 Muslim prayer places in the UK. We even have praying rooms in football stadiums now,” he said.

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Macroeconomics
Lebanese agriculture faces devastating losses in wake of Saudi export ban

Fruit and vegetable exports to Saudi Arabia are worth around $36 million, a lifeline for tens of thousands of farmers now slipping into poverty and unable to afford winter heating.


Beirut - Lebanese farmers were already reeling from the country’s economic collapse. The two and a half month import ban on all Lebanese agriculture imposed by Saudi Arabia could decimate whatever is left of the barely surviving industry.

Lebanon may be small compared to other countries in the Middle East, but because of its geography, climate, fertile soil and average rainfall, it has the highest percentage of agricultural land in the region, at around 65% of its total area of just under 10,500 square kilometres, although around half is non-productive. The Lebanese agricultural sector had generated nearly $2 billion in revenues in 2019, with exports largely sent to the Arab Gulf states, including 22% to Saudi Arabia, 17% to Qatar and 12% to Syria.

But following the 2019 financial collapse, the Lebanese economy has contracted by about 30% since 2017 and is expected to contract further in 2022. The Lebanese lira has lost over 90% of its value to the US dollar, while food prices have increased almost ten-fold since May 2019. Cumulative inflation stands at 603% between November 2019 and November 2021. Unemployment is estimated to be over 40%, and over half of households are below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, which reported Lebanon’s economic crisis ranks among the most severe episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.

Farmers have been hit particularly hard with the cutting off of their main export market of Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom in late October 2021 barred all Lebanese agriculture from entering its borders, citing a series of recent drug smuggling attempts, allegedly hidden in fruit and vegetable shipments. And because Lebanese trucks are not allowed to traverse Saudi Arabia’s territory, their access to other Gulf markets has been severely impacted as shipments must now travel by sea, according to Ibrahim Al Tarshishi, head of the Farmers Association in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's main agricultural region. 

According to data from the International Trade Centre, Lebanese exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to $247 million in 2020, with fruits and vegetables topping the list and worth around $36 million. The leading crops are potatoes, followed by tomatoes, cucumbers, gherkins, grapes, apples, cherries, figs, mint, coriander, parsley and radishes.

“Due to the ban, our sale prices are falling down to the ground and there are fewer customers,” said George Hana Fakhry, member of the Social and Economic Council (SEC) at the General Council for Agricultural Trade Unions in Lebanon. “I had to sell my products at very low prices, often less than the cost of production,” he said.

Agriculture is the second biggest employer in Lebanon following the services sector. It represents 4% of total employment in Lebanon, including nearly 64,000 workers, half of whom face dire circumstances as a direct result of the ban.

“Everything is expensive due to the collapse of the currency and now the export ban. I buy all my materials with US dollars and yet I have to sell them in Lebanese Lira,” said Ali Shokor, a farmer from the Bekaa.

Most farmers are employed seasonally, mainly in the summer to cover the high cost of winter heating. “Before the ban, Lebanese merchants who export to the Gulf used to come and buy my products, but this season I have not seen any of them,” Shokor said. “So I sold my products in the local market at low prices, without being able to save any money for winter. I do not know how we will make it.”

Saudi-Lebanese trade iis more than 60 years old, Tarshishi said, adding: “We have inherited these markets from our parents and planned on passing them to our sons because our parents have worked so hard to build trust between us and the Saudi merchants.” He said there were no alternative markets to turn to.

“We hope the Lebanese government takes some steps to solve the ban issue to go back to normal relations and to live in peace,” he said. A food security crisis is looming for the country, and a collapse of the agriculture sector will only hasten its arrival, Tarshishi said.

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Halal Industry
Halal and non-halal experts work to treat animals humanely – but consciousness at killing remains a concern

Stunning is becoming increasingly controversial in countries with growing Muslim populations as scientists debate whether or not pain is felt during differing slaughter processes.

 

Halal experts and animal welfare activists around the world are seeking common ground on how to keep and slaughter animals in the most humane ways possible. Halal certification systems that forbid stunning, the process by which animals are rendered unconscious before being bled out at slaughter, is becoming increasingly controversial for countries with growing Muslim populations.

Despite a European Union (EU) regulation allowing non-stun slaughter for religious reasons, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2020 that member states could insist on pre-slaughter non-lethal stunning if they wished. These concerns have prompted debates on what actually is the most humane way to kill livestock, and whether pre-stunning does significantly reduce stress in animals.

Halal slaughter rules require livestock to be killed by an accurate cut of the throat with a sharp knife, which "produces minimal behavioural reactions in animals and as a result, the neck cut is not perceived as painful by the animal," wrote Javaid Aziz Awan, from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), and Muhammad Sohaib, from the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, in Pakistan, in a 2019 paper. The authors added this "ensures maximum bleeding and makes the animal lose consciousness within a few seconds.” (To perform this slaughtering properly, the jugular vein of the neck should be cut to drain all the blood of a live animal and the butcher must invoke Allah's name upon each slaughter. Under Islamic law and halal guidance, livestock should not see the knife nor other animals being slaughtered and should not be denied food before being slaughtered.

Many Muslims prefer slaughter practice without pre-stunning: “We believe our Prophet believes this is the least pain to inflict on the animal,” said Mustafa Farouk, a senior meat scientist at AgResearch Ltd, a New Zealand government-owned livestock focused biological science and development institute. “It is very possible that the animal will not feel pain at all,” he said. A trained Muslim should undertake this work under regular monitoring by a halal competent entity, according to the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) agency .

If a slaughterhouse has relatively small volumes of livestock, and there is no risk of animals being aware of their impending death, the method without stunning is the best if all the conditions are adhered to, Farouk said. However, for industrial processing, reversible stunning is preferred because it protects the workers and the animal, and if the animal ends up not slaughtered, it will still “live a normal animal life,” he explained.

Different interpretations

According to the interpretations of many scholars (although not necessarily halal certification systems), Muslims must treat animals kindly throughout their lives, and therefore many practices allowed in the farming system, such as cutting their ears or tails, are deemed unacceptable, Farouk told Salaam Gateway. These issues have been explored in depth by Sira Abdul Rahman, former Dean, Bangalore Veterinary College, India, in his 2017 paper “Religion and Animal Welfare—An Islamic Perspective.”

Yet the argument that slaughter by knife without stunning can be achieved without pain or stress has been challenged by some scientists. A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion on the main systems of stunning and killing the main commercial species of animals concluded that following a knife cut to the neck, rapid blood loss is felt by the conscious animal causing fear and panic. Distress is also felt when conscious animals inhale blood because of bleeding into the trachea, the EFSA said. “Without stunning, the time between cutting through the major blood vessels and insensibility, as deduced from behavioural and brain response, is up to 20 seconds in sheep, up to 25 seconds in pigs, up to 2 minutes in cattle, up to 2.5 or more minutes in poultry, and sometimes 15 minutes or more in fish,” the report added.

“Religious slaughter without stunning is responsible for major animal welfare problems,” said Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor at the UK-based Compassion in the World Farming (CIWF) group. During the “prolonged period” between throat cutting and loss of brain responsiveness, animals can suffer extreme pain and distress, he said.

James Russell, senior-vice president at the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said that in some non-stun slaughters, animals are stunned after the cut to make sure “they are unconscious really shortly after that.” Regardless of when stunning takes place, Stevenson said “instant unconsciousness” can be achieved when performed by a properly trained slaughterman and with the correct equipment. 

In some countries, most poultry slaughter is carried out with carbon dioxide gas to induce unconsciousness. This “is not problem-free, but it is much better than the electrical water-bath,” said Russell in a reference to the process by which poultry are hung upside-down and then passed through electrified water. If not done with the right current and electrical frequency, this process can kill or only paralyse birds, which then “remain fully conscious during neck cutting,” Stevenson said.

For Farouk, the main focus should be taking proper care of the animal during its life, which he says may be more important than the question of whether an animal should be stunned at the end of its life. Reversible electric stunning, if done properly – head-only or head-to-body at a high frequency - is preferable, said Farouk. This is because with a captive bolt, “it is very unlikely that the animal will come back” to life, so in effect it has already been killed before their throats are cut.

“Animals subjected to high frequency stunning are less likely to suffer muscle contraction, muscle hemorrhages and broken bones,” according to an academic article he co-wrote in 2014. The scientist added that studies showed animals stunned with gas experience many problems, and thus their recovery “is likely to be very small.”

In another article co-written by Farouk in 2015, the scientist said that stunning is hardly a pleasant experience for livestock. If labels were clear about what they entailed, they would state stunning methods involved penetrating stunning, which cracks and penetrates the skull,or gas stunning, which puts the animal in a gas chamber. For Farouk, hand-slaughtering is better than machine-slaughter for animal welfare, even though he admits that a machine-based system “does a very good job for chicken”.

Read - European rules on butchering tighten, challenging halal sector

Abusive techniques

Regardless of the slaughtering method chosen, “if it is not done properly, any process can be abused,” he concluded. Stevenson agrees, saying many problems in Middle East slaughterhouses are unrelated to a lack of stunning, but arise from “poor pre-slaughter handling practices” particularly with large animals such as cattle and camels. He gave the example of slaughtermen “too frightened to get close enough to cattle” who “simply stab the knife into the neck.”

The activist said many Muslims were “horrified” about such abusive techniques, and that these were certainly not halal methods. The CIWF is keen to “advise halal authorities on how animals could be properly handled,” even without stunning them, Stevenson explained. Most suffering could be “addressed by proper training of slaughterhouse staff on the humane handling of animals,” regardless of the techniques used, he said. “We would be happy to advise Halal authorities on how animals could be properly handled in slaughterhouses, even if they did not wish to stun them.”

BVA’s Russell agreed that continuous training is needed. He suggested CCTVs or body cameras be installed in slaughterhouses to aid management and monitoring. The BVA has been working with halal certification bodies, he added. “We share an absolute desire to see the welfare of the animal protected” and “there is a huge common ground.”

Russell said that the captive bolt stunning applied to the head will more quickly make the animal insensitive to pain than other stunning techniques. This will increase the risk that some animals may be slaughtered while still conscious when slaughterhouses are under pressure with work.

Although studies are needed to improve techniques, Russell noted that there were no failures in stunning procedures in “99.9% of all animals slaughtered in England and Wales abattoirs” from April 2017 until March 2019. Still, improvements are necessary. One suggestion would be stunning poultry “in a way that they don’t need to be inverted” – that is hung upside-down before being gassed or electrocuted.

Avoiding animal stress

Preventing animals seeing others being stunned is “hugely challenging,” according to Russell. He recommends “human handling” and a system under which “animals would want to go in a direction” towards a slaughtering unit, without being pressured.

To avoid animal stress, the British Meat Processors Association’s (BMPA) technical operations director, David Lindars, told Salaam Gateway the solution lies in animal handling before they are stunned. “There are different ways of getting the animals to the stunning point, like the restrainer, which is designed to hold individual animals in the best way for stunning them, or in smaller plants, where they reduce what they call the stunning pen, so the animals are free moving,” Lindars said. Cattle go to a single stunning box, where high voltage or captive bolts are applied.

Lindars calls for guiding an animal into a V-restrainer, a tight-fitting box where livestock is held between the device’s -shaped sides, to avoid chasing the animal around the stunning pen, which causes stress to it. Besides, the V-restrainer doesn’t allow the animal to see others being slaughtered, Lindars explained. “The animal doesn’t know it is going to be stunned, and it is instant,” he said.

But there is still much to learn about animal reactions. There is no definitive scientific evidence that an animal does not feel pain whilst unconscious, according to a 2012 briefing note written for the European Parliament. “Indeed, a counter argument put forward is that stunning may only stop an animal displaying pain,” it added.

Farouk and others wrote in 2016: “Under Islamic spiritual teaching, death in humans is the point when the soul leaves the body.” But they also asked whether animals have “a soul similar to humans” or not. “How to tell when the soul exits the body and death ensues has not been critically examined from the point of industrial slaughter of livestock.”

Such issues highlight the potential conflict between science and religion over how humans legally kill animals. “For the scientist, the humaneness of a practice can likely be determined by examining an animal’s behaviour or brain activity as it occurs,” wrote Yale University Law School doctoral candidate Krislov Zachary in a 2015 paper on tolerating religious slaughter. On the other hand, “for the believer, a practice is apt to be humane insofar as it is commanded by the law God has established for humans.” 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Islamic Lifestyle
Middle East investors wake up to Georgia to recover from pandemic losses

From student housing and hotels to residential and commercial projects, investors from across the Middle East are pumping millions of dollars into real estate across Georgia.

 

Georgia’s ease of doing business, along with its low costs, high returns, flexible visa rules and scenic landscapes, has caught the eyes of investors looking to recover from pandemic losses.

“In Georgia, you can open a bank account, register a company and rent a house all in one day,” Islam Shalaby, creative director at Tbilisi-based real estate developer Swef Land, told Salaam Gateway.

“Freehold is possible for foreigners except for agricultural land, so you can fully own real estate without having residency, you can run a business, and you will pay taxes just like locals,” he said.

Citizens of 98 countries, including all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, can live, work and study in Georgia without the need for a visa or residence permit.

“Residents of most of those countries can also stay in the country for 90 days. They’ve recently started to become more stringent to control the number of immigrants as Georgia is preparing to apply for European Union (EU) membership in 2024,” said Shalaby.

High returns

Today, three of the largest real estate development companies in Georgia are owned by Egyptians: York Towers, Swef Land, and OTI Real Estate.

All three companies began as intermediaries before venturing into development. Together, they have pulled in millions of dollars in investments from the Middle East and beyond.

“They studied and tested the market and gradually, backed by strong investors, they started investing millions and acquiring land,” said Shalaby.

He said that real estate investors in Georgia get 8% to 12% annual return on investment (ROI).

“Even at the peak of the pandemic, it was the safest and most promising sector, and investments increased,” said Shalaby.

OTI, for instance, entered the student housing market in 2020. Led by CEO Hani Hebashi, who is also the president of the Georgian-Egyptian Business Council, the company’s $160 million project comprises five residential complexes across Batumi and Tbilisi, Georgia’s two largest cities

According to Hebashi, Georgia has around 12,000 foreign students but lacks student accommodation in line with international standards.

He said that student housing is among the top five most attractive sectors for investment worldwide, with an annual ROI of 4.5% to 7%, but in Georgia, OTI is offering up to 10%.

Read: Middle East tourist arrivals in Georgia soar 511% year-on-year

Resilient sector

Georgia’s real estate market was not severely affected by the pandemic. In 2020, for example, Swef Land injected $200 million into Georgia by bringing foreign capital into the country.

Meanwhile, OTI Real Estate has brought $500 million to Georgia since 2018 through more than 500 investors, mostly Arabs. The company recently partnered with Kuwait’s Ayar Real Estate to develop tourism resorts and residential projects.

York Towers also made its biggest investment in 2020, acquiring 2 million square metres of strategic land around the Bazaleti Lake, northwest of the capital.

“To invest in such a huge commercial plot, ready with infrastructure, and bring in Arab investors in the middle of the pandemic is a major achievement,” said Shalaby.

Georgia’s GDP is expected to grow by 8.5% in 2021 after an economic contraction of 6.2% in 2020, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“Very few countries recovered this fast and to higher levels than pre-pandemic. As soon as the country opened, there was a huge pent-up demand for travel; people were rushing to visit,” said Shalaby, who works with multiple companies in Georgia.

“Business owners were eager to make up for financial losses and were looking for good opportunities. So, 2021 was a great year for many people and a fortunate time for business,” he said.

Swef Land is holding its first conference, Invest Hub, on 28 December to promote its latest projects, including the new ‘Hollywood Resort’.

The massive development lies in a green valley between two mountains and is surrounded by 44 cultural and archaeological landmarks. It will have a cinematic theme and the country’s longest zipline.

With the market’s recent performance, institutional investors from the Middle East are waking up to Georgia’s potential. But the trend is not entirely new.

One of the first investments from the region came from the UAE-based Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority, which acquired Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace in 2007 for $68 million.

A decade later, the UAE’s now-dissolved Dhabi Group invested $130 million in Biltmore Tbilisi Hotel, which occupies a historical building in the ancient city.

Natural landscapes

While the UAE remains the largest government investor in Georgia among Arab countries, Saudi Arabia accounts for the lion’s share of individual investments, according to Shalaby.

“Saudis are investing in private real estate, including land, apartments, and villas – often multiple properties – in both cities and suburbs; the latter has a higher ROI,” he said.

A large part of Swef Land’s work is focused on the suburbs. The company believes these areas will eventually transform into major population centres due to urban expansion, and therefore, their value will increase.

“Swef Land managed to sell seven projects in one year because it focuses on suburbs. It doesn’t make sense to bring a GCC investor and tell him to invest in a building just like the one in Riyadh, for example. They want to see the beauty of Georgia’s nature,” said Shalaby.
 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Islamic Lifestyle
Indonesia sends first batch of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia since 2020 border closure

Pilgrimage was approved after Indonesian government took extensive screening measures.

 

Jakarta – The Indonesian government hopes Umrah pilgrimage activity will gradually return to normal following the departure of 419 pilgrims on 8 January. It is the first departure since Saudi Arabia closed its borders to Umrah pilgrims in February 2020, as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Saudi Arabian government approved the move after Indonesia introduced a new one-gate screening measure, meaning all pilgrims should be quarantined and depart from Soekarno-Hatta airport. It also centralised the process of health screening including PCR test and vaccination status.

"We have to make sure this departure will go well because if we succeed, it can be a benchmark for upcoming Umrah full reopening or even Hajj reopening this year,” Director General of Hajj and Umrah Organisation at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Hilman Latief told Salaam Gateway.

Tens of thousands of Umrah pilgrim trips have been cancelled across Indonesia since February 2020. In the pre COVID-19 era, Indonesia usually sent around 1 million Umrah pilgrims each year.  

Syam Resfiadi, chairperson of the Indonesia Hajj and Umrah Travel Association (SAPUHI) and the owner of Patuna Travel Agency told Salaam Gateway that he will start offering Umrah packages to customers at the end of this month following the Umrah reopening.

Resfiadi said the one-gate measure is the right move from the government to prevent unscrupulous travel agents from performing fake PCR tests or forging other required documents.

Patuna Travel, which has 5,000 customers, says it hasn’t organised any pilgrimage trips since the Saudi government closed Umrah activity in February 2020 because many of the customers objected to the 13 days quarantine requirement. Some 75% of Patuna’s customers are state employees and government officials, meaning they require extended annual leave to perform Umrah. 

“With the quarantine requirement it takes around 20 days, it’s too long for them,” Resfiadi said.

Following the Umrah reopening, national airline Garuda Indonesia will fly twice per week from Soekarno-Hatta airport to Medina, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Hajj and Umrah passengers contribute 10% of the airline's total annual revenue.

 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Islamic Finance
US Islamic investment platform Wahed rolls out Sharia-compliant ESG-themed fund

US-based Islamic investment platform Wahed has rolled out a new Sharia-compliant ESG themed exchange traded fund (ETF).

 

The Wahed Dow Jones Islamic World ETF (Ticker: UMMA) began trading last Friday on the Nasdaq stock exchange. 

The actively managed fund will benchmark to the Dow Jones Islamic Market International Titans 100 Index, a data-driven index owned and maintained by S&P Dow Jones Indices. The fund is designed to measure the stock performance of the largest global companies – excluding the US – that adhere to Sharia compliance guidelines. 

The new ETF utilises RepRisk, an environmental, social and governance (ESG) data science provider combining machine learning and human intelligence to assess ESG risks. UMMA has an expense ratio of 0.65%

“We’re using RepRisk for daily filtering, screening, and analysis of controversies related to companies within the fund,” said Samim Abedi, chief investment officer at Wahed. “Such analysis includes a range of issues such as economic crime and corruption, fraud, illegal commercial practices, human rights issues, labour disputes, workplace safety, catastrophic accidents and environmental disasters.”

This latest ETF follows Wahed’s first ETF, the Wahed FTSE USA Shariah ETF (Ticker: HLAL), a strictly US equity focused fund which it launched on the Nasdaq in 2019. Wahed says its new ETF would be the first Sharia compliant ESG-focused/theme ETF on Nasdaq.

It joins the growing activity of providers of combining Sharia compliant and ESG principles. Most recently, in November, Saturna Capital, a US-based investment manager partnered with London-based ETF platform HANetf to launch the Saturna Al-Kawthar Global Focused Equity UCITS ETF. The London Stock Exchange, Borsa Italiana and Germany’s XETRA listed actively managed ETF consists of Sharia compliant stocks with positive ESG characteristics, primarily targeting European investors.

Wahed’s ETFs also joins a growing number of Islamic ETFs in the market which include SP Funds, S&P Global REIT Shariah and, depending on the broker access, BlackRock's iShares Islamic ETFs.

The rationale of establishing this new ETF came down to two main reasons, Wahed's Abedi noted.

“Firstly, as we look to provide long-term capital appreciation to investors, we wanted to provide better diversification through international exposure,” he said. “As part of our investment thesis, we see the possibility of international and emerging markets playing catch-up to the US market over the next few years, so we believe it’s an ideal time to add this global exposure.” 

“Secondly, we’re seeing the line between ethical, socially responsible and ESG funds continue to blur,” he said. “Investors are increasingly looking for more personalised investing options that better fit their individual beliefs. By bringing these values-based investment principles together, we believe we’re addressing a clear gap in the market for an international Sharia-compliant fund managed through an ESG investing lens.”

To ensure flows and liquidity, the ETF is listed on the Nasdaq, which will allow American investors to have access to investing in both ETFs through their brokerage or using the Wahed Invest app or platform, Abedi said.

“UMMA is equity-focused, and many of the top holdings are large-cap and well-known companies, so we’re highly liquid,” he said. “Additionally, we have dedicated liquidity providers looking to ensure the fund trades on a relatively tight bid-ask spread, closely tracking the net asset value of the underlying constituents.”

Blake Goud, CEO of the RFI Foundation, a think-tank which seeks to converge various forms of responsible finance including ESG, impact investing and Islamic finance, said it is encouraging to see more funds that combine Sharia compliance and ESG screening. 

“On the ESG front, RFI's research has shown that different ways of using ESG data can interact with Sharia screens in different ways,” he said. “And so, as with all ESG funds but particularly for funds that combine ESG and Sharia screening, it's important to have transparency around ESG policies, both for their screening and active stewardship practices.”

Aside from the ETF, Abedi said that Wahed is working on new products for 2022 across different geographies.

“Wahed has products in the pipeline and will provide more details as we near live dates across various markets,” he said. “For the US market, we’ll be launching an updated version of our app in the coming months, which will bring additional functionality and products.” 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Islamic Lifestyle
Middle East tourist arrivals in Georgia soar 511% year-on-year

Georgia’s popularity is soaring as an affordable holiday and second-home destination, buoyed by easy visa requirements for Arab tourists.

 

Georgia has become one of the most popular destinations for holidaymakers and from the Middle East thanks to its scenic landscapes, affordable hotels, and proximity to the region, as well as the increasing availability of halal food and Arabic speaking guides.

In November 2021, Middle East tourist arrivals in Georgia soared 511 percent year-on-year to 103,500, reaching numbers close to pre-pandemic levels, statistics from the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) show.

The former Soviet state welcomed more than 150,000 travellers from the Middle East in 2019.

“Georgia is a budget tourism destination. You can stay in a hostel, hotel, or a fully furnished apartment for $30 per day, which is very cheap. The food is good quality and cheap, transportation is cheap, and the services are excellent,” said Islam Shalaby, founder and CEO at Yalla Georgia Travel & Tourism, to Salaam Gateway.

Tourists from the region, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, are now coming back on repeat visits, and they are spending entire months on the Black Sea, in villages around the green Caucasus mountains, or in the capital Tbilisi, home to the bustling Arab Quarter.

"GCC countries are one of our main strategic target markets. Once (having) travelled to Georgia, travellers from these countries tend to have longer stays, repeat visits as well as higher expenditures,” Medea Janiashvili, acting head of GNTA, said in a statement.

GNTA recently partnered with Wego, an online travel marketplace in the Middle East and North Africa, to promote the recovery of the tourism sector in Georgia.

According to Wego, around 100,000 searches on Georgia were made on the platform in November 2021. Solo travelers accounted for 63% of the searches, couples 22%, and families 15%.

Muslim-friendly tourism

A mountainous country located between Europe and Central Asia, Georgia is predominantly Christian, but it has a sizable Muslim community of more than 400,000, representing around 10% of the population.

A few mosques serve this community and they are mostly in large cities. Halal food, on the other hand, is widely available in Iranian and Turkish restaurants as well as at local eateries.

“In Tbilisi, halal food is everywhere. Even restaurants that are run by Georgians serve halal food, and the locals are friendly with Arabs and very peaceful. We have one mosque, in central Tbilisi, and it holds a Friday prayer every week,” said Taha.

The Jumah Mosque is one of Tbilisi’s most famous landmarks and probably the only one in the world where Sunni and Shiite Muslims pray side by side, according to Shalaby.

Batumi, the second largest city, has a few halal restaurants mostly offering Turkish cuisine, and one mosque. The city is the capital of Adjara, a region which lies on the Black Sea coast, north of Turkey, and where nearly 40% of the population practice Islam.

“Most of Georgia’s food is halal. When you visit any supermarket, you will find halal food and some even carry the halal label in the Georgian language,” said Taha.

Halal food is also available in cities with large Muslim communities, such as Rustavi and Marneuli, close to Azerbaijan, and Pankisi, south of the border with Chechnya.

“In regions along the borders with Muslim countries, you will find big Muslim cities,” said Shalaby, who is also creative director at Swef Land, an Egyptian-owned Tbilisi-based real estate developer.

Outside these cities, in Georgia’s villages, halal food is difficult to find but only because tourism is still new to the country, he said.

A home away from home

Georgia’s religious diversity and tolerance, as evident from the peaceful coexistence of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, together with its liberal visa regime, is encouraging visitors from the Middle East to come back and scout for a home away from home and set up businesses.

“When I first arrived here in 2017 as a student, there were very few Arabs. But now there are many Arabs who are studying and running businesses, including expats from Gulf countries,” Mohammad Taha, co-founder of International Business Group (IBG), a Tbilisi-based educational consultancy serving Arab students, told Salaam Gateway. “The number of students we’ve been registering has been doubling every year.”

Universities in Georgia have easier admission requirements compared to their European counterparts, which are harder to get into and where Muslim students may encounter Islamophobia, according to Taha.

“People started to notice Georgia because the prices are low, entry is easy, and the country is peaceful. Women feel safe going out anytime of the day or night,” he said.

While there have been a few Islamophobic incidents in recent years, such as the 2017 rally in Tbilisi, and the 2021 attack on Muslims over a new prayer space in western Georgia, they are few and far between, and the government usually intervenes.

For instance, in a rare case in 2019 when a hotel rejected a Muslim guest, the owner was given a jail sentence, according to Shalaby.

“When your country is wide open to everyone, you get all types of people,” he said, referring to illegal immigrants.

“Georgians felt overwhelmed at first. Arabic was suddenly everywhere on the streets and on shop signs next to Georgian. It could be a personal issue among a few, but it certainly doesn’t exist on a societal or political level,” said Shalaby.

 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Halal Industry
Spain aims to support its growing halal tourism and food industry

$6.8 billion was spent in Spain on products associated with a Muslim lifestyle in 2019 while Spanish halal exporters also supplied $4.7 billion worth of halal-certified food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics products to OIC countries that year.

 

Spain has been expanding its halal tourism and food sales, leveraging its geographical proximity to Muslim countries in North Africa to provide travel and accommodation services.

In the CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index 2021, Spain climbed six positions to the 16th in the top non-Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) destinations. The 2020/21 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report by DinarStandard said that in 2019, 2.77 million Muslim tourists visited the country.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted business, but halal sector experts think Spain is well-positioned to grow its Muslim-oriented tourism and food sales. 

According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), from January until September 2021, 48,733 Moroccans visited the country, much less than the 128,468 who travelled to Spain in 2020 and the 741,855 counted in 2019. The pandemic also hit the numbers of Turkish visitors: down from 269,557 in 2019 to 62,837 in 2020 and 48,460 from January until September 2021.

Tomás Guerrero, director of the Dubai government’s Halal Trade and Marketing Centre – and a Spaniard himself – is optimistic that these numbers will grow. And alongside them, sales of halal food, cosmetics and even pharmaceuticals in Spain. There are 2.2 million Muslims living in Spain, representing approximately 4% of the population in 2020, according to the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain (UCIDE) and the Andalusian Observatory, with 42% Spanish citizens and 58% immigrants with residence and work permits, especially from Morocco. 

Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Senegal, Algeria, Nigeria and Bangladesh are also present in significant numbers. Guerrero noted DinarStandard data that $6.8 billion was spent in Spain on products associated with a Muslim lifestyle in 2019, such as halal food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and travel, modest apparel and clothing, as well as Muslim-focused media and recreation.

Spanish halal exporters also supplied $4.7 billion worth of halal-certified food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics products to OIC countries that year, he said.

The figure could be higher but there is “resistance” from some companies with certified products to sell them domestically with the halal stamp for fear that they will not be bought by non-Muslim consumers and due to controversies with animal welfare activists, explained Muhammad Escudero, director of the certification department at the Halal Institute, the leading halal certification organisation in Spain.

And while he recognised that the pandemic slowed growth in Spain’s halal market, Escudero also believes sales will expand, especially food exports. Some companies are selling new halal products such as nuts, with a halal certificate, to Muslim-majority markets, for instance Spain’s Calconut SL.

Extenda, the trade promotion agency of Andalusia, where much of Spain’s tourism sector is based, replied there is no official data about exports of halal food. That said, the number of restaurants nationwide with at least one dish with certified halal meat grew from 121 in 2011 to 344 this year, levelling off during the pandemic, with 343 in 2020, compared to 340 in 2019. The numbers reflect those registered in halal restaurants and markets guide Zabihah, its founder Shahed Amanullah told Salaam Gateway. 

Amanullah anticipates a return to “robust growth,” adding that Spain is an important market not just because of its attraction to Muslim travellers and its growing population of North African descent, but also because it is ready to be a major supplier of halal meat to the rest of Europe. This is because restrictions on halal meat production, such as increased stunning requirements, have been introduced in some European countries, such as Belgium, and therefore have to import it for their large Muslim populations.

Spain does not face such problems, he said. “Spanish meat-based delicatessen products are world-renowned and halal meat producers in Spain have taken advantage of this to produce halal versions of these products. They are starting to get noticed in markets outside Spain where halal processed meat options do not include traditional European products,” Amanullah said.

The Singapore-based platform eHalal.io, with 230,000 monthly users, had an “increase of 284 percent in website traffic from last year to this year from the Spanish market,” founder Irwan Shah told Salaam Gateway. He added that most Muslim users from Spain “look for global Muslim food brands.” Around 90% of the market in Spain is composed of small retailers that sell other groceries too, and a few supermarket chains that “normally don’t promote” their limited halal products, Shah said.

Looking ahead, Madrid is working to become “one of the European capitals of reference” for emerging Muslim markets, said the director of tourism of Madrid City Council, Héctor Coronel. Madrid’s new Strategic Tourism Plan 2021-2023 “focuses on this market due to its characteristics and its growth potential,” he explained, including plans to promote more transport connectivity between Madrid and Muslim-majority countries by working with tour operators to adjust their services.

Coronel specified Saudi Arabia as “the country with the most potential” for Madrid, due to its large population and “openness to the West,” but the city council is also trying to attract tourists from the UAE, Qatar, Indonesia and Malaysia. Madrid is already promoting its Muslim patrimony, mosques, and halal services.

In the early Middle Ages what is now Spain was part of a group of Muslim states called Al-Andalus - romanticised as a golden age of tolerance and reason. With most or part of the country under Muslim rule from 711 until 1492, Spain can tap cultural dividends from its Islamic past. For instance, the Tourism Institute of Spain promotes several ‘Routes of the Heritage of Al-Andalus’ in the southern region of Andalusia to attract Muslim tourists. Part of the offering is integrating delicatessens, whose products are sold as halal souvenirs.

The Halal Institute is working with hotels and restaurants to help them meet Muslim needs, but just a few hotels have so far become halal certified (in terms of service offerings) and they were not renewed during the pandemic, said Escudero, noting it is “hard” to create “a space or hotel just for one type of clientele”.

To promote a wide range of certification, the Halal Institute is developing a “more flexible” mechanism called the ‘Authorised Halal point of sale’ to promote small companies with non-certified halal products or services or products certified by other companies. This does not necessitate certifying the company itself, which requires more costs and bureaucracy, he told Salaam Gateway.

Guerrero added that Spain can take advantage of the fact that “countries of North Africa and the Middle East import around 60% to 70%” of their food. Those emerging markets, with younger populations, increasing numbers of women working and digital natives make an enticing target for the roughly 1,000 Spanish companies who have halal certification. To him, Spain is an important player in the halal food market because it exports “a broader spectrum” of products over countries that export more in terms of volume, but with less diversity.

 

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved

Halal Industry
Halal food industry challenged with fraudulent products and certification disputes 

Following a series of scandals, industry experts call for more regulation and harmonised standardisation as new technologies emerge to combat consumer deception.

 

London – Fraud in the halal food sector is emerging as a widespread problem. A series of scandals have rocked the industry worldwide, shining a light on the difficulty of eliminating non-halal practices from increasingly large and complicated food supply chains.

In Thailand, the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry investigated a suspected widespread scam of pork coated in oxblood that was sold off as beef in the halal food markets of Bangkok in the summer of 2020. This followed analysis of dozens of samples by the Halal Science Centre at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. More than a year after the allegations surfaced, no convictions have been reported, however livestock and consumer protection officials have since pledged to increase monitoring of food quality and sourcing and to investigate anyone suspected of violating laws controlling the slaughter of animals or the certification of meat for sale. Under Thai law, offenders could face imprisonment of up to one year and a fine not exceeding Thai Baht THB100,000 ($3,000).

In Malaysia, a cartel was accused in December 2020 by anonymous whistle-blowers speaking to Malay-language daily Sinar Harian of allegedly bribing customs officials for 40 years to import frozen meat (including kangaroo and horse meat, although these claims were subsequently played down by the Malaysian government) from China, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina. It was declared as halal but was not slaughtered according to Islamic customs or sourced from approved stakeholders before being repackaged as halal beef. Three executives of Syarikat LY Frozen Food Sdn Bhd, the company implicated in alleged fraud, were subsequently charged with money laundering offences and violations of trade descriptions legislation. The trial continues and an arrest warrant has been issued for a fourth executive, who remains at large.

Other high profile examples have included the conviction in 2015 of the owner of a US-based meat exporter, Midamar, found guilty of fraudulently misrepresenting beef sold to Malaysia and Indonesia as halal. In Australia, whistle-blowing reports of abattoirs revealed exploitation of workers and failure to follow halal practices for poultry and other meat destined for Malaysia.

Rising demand equals more scams

According to the UK-based Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC), practices such as mislabelling and contamination have increased with growing consumption of halal products. The certification organisation was established in 2003 to uphold standards for halal food produced and sold in the UK

"There are a lot of imported products in the UK that come in from the global supply chain, the majority of which are from non-majority Muslim countries. Nobody has visibility on those products and whether they conform to the UK Muslim community's expectations," said Nadeem Adam, HMC operations director. 

Because demand for halal products outstrips supply, and because halal meat is more expensive than non-halal (due to labour, inspection and certification costs), unscrupulous suppliers have the opportunity to introduce haram products into the halal supply chain, Adam said. 

Other contributors to the problem, according to Ali Abdallah, independent scientist and halal fraud expert based in Bari, Italy, are the "multiplicity of halal standards, (and) disagreements between halal certification (and accreditation) bodies" about what constitutes halal.

This means a product that has been produced to halal standards in one country may not be considered halal by a different country. And while "these circumstances are more about consumer expectations than actual fraud," explained Adam, the grey areas they create can be exploited by scammers.

Fraud issues in the USA and UK

In the USA, where there is no federal regulation of halal food production, the certification process is performed by third-party certifiers based on differing requirements and their own interpretations of religious tenets, said Melissa McKendree, assistant professor at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics (AFRE) at Michigan State University. McKendree is supervising a research project supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help the US meat industry improve halal certification and pinpoint potential anti-fraud solutions.

In the UK, much of suspected fraud occurs at the point of slaughter. HMC does not endorse any form of stunning (where the animal is rendered unconscious, by electric shock or other methods, before it is killed) as part of the slaughter process. However, HMC believes meat produced using various stunning (as well as non-halal compliant non-stunning) methods are being labelled and sold as halal in the UK.

Other non-halal practices occur further down the supply chain. In recent years, there have been reports from across the world of traces of pork DNA reportedly being found in meat (and even confectionary) products labelled as halal. Meanwhile, analysis of halal-marked poultry products has shown the water used in “pumping-up” chickens contains proteins of porcine origin.

HMC attempts to combat fraud by only certifying products that meet its halal standards. It uses a patented certification mark, distinct from the generic halal 'logo' (the word ‘halal’ written in Arabic and presented as a symbol), that its more than 1,000 member shops, butchers and takeaways display as a sign to consumers that their products conform to HMC's ‘farm to fork’ halal criteria.

But while such measures may help consumers make informed decisions about what to buy, they do little to tackle malpractice.

Challenges to curbing fraud

A major barrier to stamping out fraud is the difficulty of enforcing halal standards.  The problem arises in non-majority Muslim countries like the US, where the sector is not legally regulated and halal and non-halal supply chains have many opportunities to merge, according to Kelsey Hopkins, who is leading the AFRE research project into halal meat production. 

HMC similarly admits that in the UK, where halal meat makes up approximately 7% (according to HMC estimates) of the country’s combined beef, lamb and chicken supply, it does not have the power to take action when there is suspected crossover with the overwhelming majority of non-halal meat.

"The UK does not have a halal standard, so if somebody suspected that a store was selling something that was not halal-compliant, there is very little we can do," Adam said. 

In countries without halal food regulations, the industry usually has to rely on other consumer protection and trading standards legislation to prosecute anyone suspected of fraud or misrepresentation. "EU countries actually contain all the instruments required to resolve most of these problems," said Abdallah. He also notes the existence of "ethical/moral fraud," where products which do not require halal certification, such as olive oil, are labelled halal to take advantage of gullible consumers. This is different from "legal fraud" where a product is misrepresented, he said.

But legal halal food fraud is extremely difficult to detect, due to the challenge of testing products and inspecting practices at every stage of intricate and increasingly international supply chains.

Fraud issues in Muslim majority countries

Even in Muslim majority countries, where the halal food sector is typically regulated and governments have powers to take enforcement measures against fraudulent producers and retailers, fraud is still a major issue.

In Malaysia, responsibility for halal certification is governed by the Halal Hub Division, a special department set up by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM). It is an offence in Malaysia to label products as halal without authorisation from JAKIM, and accredited enforcement agencies are authorised to suspend or revoke business licences of those who misuse or falsify halal certifications. Those found to have breached the rules may be prosecuted.

But the recent revelations about a long standing fraud cartel shows that regulations are only as good as their implementation. Media reports at the time the scandal was discovered linked JAKIM officials to the corrupt practices (although this was denied by the authority) and Abdallah cites the "weakness of the authorities in ensuring the integrity of halal certification, and involvement with politics and religion" as factors undermining the successful policing of halal food standards. 

In recognition of the difficulty of policing halal food standards in a globalised world, efforts have been made to internationalise standards.

Harmonising standards

According to Abdallah, the international halal standard involving the greatest number of Muslim countries (57 in total, with a combined population of 1.6 billion) is the OIC/SMIIC 1:2011, containing the general guidelines on halal food. The SMIIC standard is a joint initiative between the Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries and the Turkey-headquartered Standards and Metrology Institute for the Islamic Countries (SMIIC).

In May 2011, this standard defined the basic requirements at any stage of the food chain, such as receiving, preparation, labelling, processing, packaging control, transport, distribution, storage and service of halal food based on Sharia rules.

Other attempts to harmonise the halal market include the efforts of the World Halal Food Council (WHFC) and the International Halal Accreditation Forum (IHAF).

Technology to the rescue?

To support these standards, technology is increasingly seen as the key to detecting and stamping out halal food fraud.

Following the December 2020 cartel scandal, Malaysia's JAKIM announced plans to improve the recognition of foreign halal certification bodies by adding on-pack QR codes and digitising halal certificates to reduce the risk of duplication.

A team at China's Sichuan University is evaluating a DNA sequencing technology known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) to replace unreliable protein testing and expensive quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) DNA testing in food authentication.

Elsewhere, researchers at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University's Halal Science Centre have developed a chromatography-based strip test that can detect DNA from forbidden meats.

In the Netherlands, researchers at Wageningen University & Research and a separate team at Iran's Islamic Azad University Tehran Science and Research Branch are investigating the possibility of using infra-red technology, which can be deployed using hand-held devices, to check meat. Also, food supply chain technology specialists, such as Singapore-based digital B2B platform OneAgrix, are introducing blockchain solutions to track meat from slaughter to the point-of-sale to the consumer.

With the mounting purchasing power of younger, larger generations of Muslim consumers, and growing competition between retailers, from supermarkets to fast food services, more attention is being paid to what influences consumer choice in the halal food sector.

One of the aims of the AFRE project at Michigan State University is to establish whether demand to know the provenance of halal products is strong enough to warrant additional investment in fraud prevention. 

"This project can help supply chain members deduce if consumer willingness to pay for halal certified foods outweighs the potential costs of adopting new traceability and verification technology to ensure proper certification,” said Hopkins.

For HMC, the issue is to do with education and awareness, rather than any question over the willingness of consumers to pay for genuine halal products. "From a consumer perspective, it's about a journey," Adam said, pointing to a July 2020 study by the UK's Bristol University that surveyed the buying behaviours of 250 Muslims and found that 70% of those questioned preferred to buy non-stunned meat. 

"When people start to think about this issue, they do some research and want to learn more about how to choose genuine halal products. We get calls from people who want to understand what the risks are, what to look out for and how to make choices that meet their expectations," he said.

© SalaamGateway.com 2021 All Rights Reserved


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