(Photos: One of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches in Deira, October 26, 2010./Jumana El-Heloueh)
Emirati housewife Sarah Alzarouni brushed past a group of women clad in floor-length black robes, some with only their eyes showing, to enter through the frosted doors of one of Dubai Islamic Bank’s women-only branches. Clutching a Louis Vuitton bag to match her designer head scarf, Alzarouni greeted the female tellers and bank manager with three kisses on the cheek and sat down to do business.
“I am much more comfortable working with ladies than in a mixed environment,” Alzarouni, 27, said. “When I come here, I feel like one of them. They understand my needs and I can move freely, not having to always think where I am and whether my (scarf) has moved. As a Muslim, it is really important for me to deal with an Islamic bank. “
Many affluent Muslim women share Alzarouni’s sentiments and they are increasingly turning to Islamic banks to manage their money. These women are looking beyond basic banking services to sophisticated products to grow their wealth while complying with Islamic principals that include a ban on interest.
According to a report by Boston Consulting Group, women in the Middle East controlled 22 percent, or $500 billion, of the region’s total assets under management in 2009. Financial institutions in the conservative Gulf Arab region, where many women are reluctant to mix with men outside their families, are tapping into the niche, with women-only bank branches and investment funds mushrooming.