May 14th, 2010
02:06 PM GMT
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The world is still trying to size up the validity and effectiveness of the European Union $1 billion support package for Greece and future emergencies on the Continent. Even though Greece’s gross domestic product is relatively small at $324 billion, the potential contagion has been enough to rattle markets from Hong Kong to Wall Street.

While that drama was unfolding, coupled with the week-long hung parliament saga in Britain, real business was being done with an Islamic twist.

One of Britain’s foremost brands, Harrods, was swept up over the last week for $2.3 billion dollars. The seller was Egyptian Mohamed Al Fayed. The buyer: the investment vehicle of the Emir of Qatar, Qatar Holding. Qatar likes - some would say loves - the UK market. He has stakes in J. Sainsbury, Barclays Bank, Canary Wharf, and is now the owner of the property currently housing the U.S. Embassy in Mayfair, West London.

On the other end of the globe, Qatar-based Gulf Petroleum said it plans to invest $5 billion in an oil and gas complex in Malaysia. The two governments have been talking for the past couple of years and now believe the timing is right to proceed.

And if that was not enough, we should keep an eye on the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who added Qatar to his agenda after a planned visit to Russia. It is worth noting that Brazilian oil giant Petrobras’ off-shore discoveries are garnering plenty of attention by would-be investors like Qatar. Rather quietly, Brazil’s exports to Qatar are up by two-thirds in 2010 versus the same period last year.

There are two sides to this story. Outbound investments by what we can call Brand Islam and inbound investments into a rapidly growing market of more than one and a half billion people in the Muslim world.

With regards to the former, it is not surprising that Gulf sovereign funds in particular are hunting for investment opportunities. Oil has hovered around $80 since the start of 2010 and it continues to generate healthy cash flow that needs to be deployed.

While big-name brand purchases in the West will always garner more than their fair share of media coverage, the quieter business and political diplomacy by the major players in the Muslim world, often amongst themselves, is even more intriguing. Someone kindly emailed the Qatar-Malaysia energy piece, but it is not the first item people in the business community are talking about.

Meanwhile, marketing teams are looking for the best way to reach out to the Muslim consumer market. While I often talk about the potential of a broader Middle East market of 300 million consumers or more, the reality is companies need to look to South and East Asia for the real numbers.

Today the Muslim market represents over one-fifth of the world’s population. Rapid expanding birth rates will translate into greater market share over the next two decades. Obviously, this is not a “one size fits all” market. A consumer in Jakarta behaves quite differently from one in Jeddah. There is also a huge wealth gap between these countries of the Ummah, or "the community of believers." Per capita income in Qatar ranks near the top of heap worldwide; Yemen is near the bottom.

The more one digs into this market, the more layers of complexity are uncovered. The market for Halal foods is growing rapidly, but again, the taste vary widely from Europe to Asia. That sector though remains simple to tackle versus say Islamic banking where scholars today are still seeking common ground for the rapidly growing market.

The top-line numbers are impressive and are worthy of not only our attention in the news sphere, but in the business community as well. Now back to the EU and long-term debt!

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