Finance & Banking

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DR. KAIRAT KELIMBETOV GOVERNOR OF THE ASTANA INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL CENTRE

Kazakhstan is a rising star in the global Islamic financial services industry. His Excellency Nursultan
Nazarbayev, First President of Kazakhstan, is one of the few leaders in the OIC countries, who have
shown their commitment to providing Islamic banking and finance a level playing field, along with the
conventional banking and finance. His efforts have been recognised by Global Islamic Finance Awards (GIFA)
in 2014 when he was chosen to be a GIFA Laureate in Dubai. The top GIFA award – the Global Leadership
in Islamic Finance Award 2014 was bestowed on him in the presence of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al
Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai. Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov, the
then Governor of the Central Bank of Kazakhstan, played an instrumental role in attaining the top award for
the President.

The incumbent President of the country, His Excellency Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has affirmed the continuity
of his government’s support for Islamic banking and finance in the country as well as in the wider region.

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov is known for his advocacy for Islamic finance not only in his own country but also
globally. His efforts have been recognised by various public, private and social sector organisations, as well as
by GIFA Awards. He was the first governor of the Central Bank of Kazakhstan, who in real terms owned what
may be termed as “the Islamic finance project” in Kazakhstan. He ensured that Islamic banking and finance was
not only well-grounded nationally but was also recognised globally.

The Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) of which he is the founding Governor is now a reality. He
started it from scratch and opened its doors in 2018 for the international players to come and domicile their
businesses therein. In this exclusive interview with Dr. Kelimbetov, we unfold the story of Astana International
Financial Centre, and in the process attempt to know him as a leader in the global Islamic financial services
industry.

ISFIRE: Dr. Kelimbetov, you have a long list of accomplishments,
which makes it difficult to start an interview with you. So, we
shall pick up the most recent one. The Astana International
Financial Centre is now not only open for business but has also
started attracting players from around the world. How do you
feel about it?
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: Pleased… But this is only the start. I keep
on reminding myself and my team that success is not just an event.
It is a process. The success must continue and for this to happen we all
must not stop working. There is no room for complacency.

ISFIRE: How did the idea of setting up the AIFC come about?

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: We are a young country,
albeit with a long and rich history. Our First
President has been a great source of
inspiration for us. All of us in Kazakhstan,
including the incumbent President KassymJomart Tokayev, share his vision of making
Kazakhstan an abode of excellence
for financial services, including Islamic
banking and finance. The idea was
conceived by the First President and
it came under discussion when His
Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev
spoke with Sheikh Mohamed Bin
Rashid Al Maktoum during the GIFA
Awards Ceremony in 2014. Sheikh
Mohamed Bin Rashid offered to
help Kazakhstan if he wanted to
build a similar financial centre. I
was then serving as Governor of
the Central Bank and I decided
to work to convert this idea into
reality. I must say that this was
not possible without the help
of an amazing team I enjoy the
support of.

ISFIRE: What is the real value proposition of the AIFC?
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov:
We take a very pragmatic
approach when it comes to doing business. We
have tried to collect best practices from around
the world and have modified them to suit our
own unique position and to serve our clients in
better ways. We wanted to emulate the success
of Dubai International Financial Centre and in
the process have come up with something that
is the best solution for our region. Kazakhstan is
a huge country that offers ample opportunities
to the financial firms to do business in the
region. Nowadays, Kazakhstan is an inalienable
part of the New Silk Road. In some sense, by promoting the AIFC we are bringing the financial
services back to the region, where the industry was
blooming centuries ago. The aim of the AIFC is to
enhance growth and development of financial services
in Kazakhstan and the region by providing services
in accordance with the international standards and
best practices of the leading financial centres of the
world based on the principles of English common law.
Governance and trust have become an important
agenda for the emerging markets, which is why we
adopt the same principles of English Common law,
according to which independent regulatory authorities
with flexible regulation attractive to businesses,
conduct their operations.

An independent regulator, Astana Financial Services
Authority (AFSA) is one of the central elements in
the AIFC model. AFSA’s underlying principles are
based on fairness, transparency and efficiency to
ensure the integrity of the whole financial industry’s
ecosystem. AFSA accommodates the AIFC’s efforts
to continuously adapt to the evolving global financial
world by introducing innovative new regulations that
cater to market trends and industry needs.

The AIFC Court has exclusive jurisdiction over
disputes arising out of the activities and operations of
the AIFC and jurisdiction in the case of other disputes
in which all parties agree in writing to give the Court
jurisdiction. To earn global community’s confidence in the AIFC, we have invited the most trusted, influential
and well-recognised judges to come on board. This
shows our commitment to the rule of law, transparency
and accountability.

.
International Arbitration Centre has its own panel of
outstanding international arbitrators and mediators
who are familiar to international businesses for
being greatly experienced, impartial, and of the
highest integrity. It offers parties maximum choice
and flexibility in choosing the rules and procedures
they wish to use for the resolution of their disputes
and offers arbitration, mediation, and other types of
alternative dispute resolution services at the choice of
the parties.
We are also proud to partner with the world’s
largest stock exchanges, Nasdaq and Shanghai Stock
Exchange, who have also become the shareholders
of the Astana International Exchange (AIX). Last year,
Goldman Sachs became a shareholder of the AIX. Prior
to that the Silk Road Fund became our strategic partner
as well. The role of the AIX is to enable domestic
and regional development, through the mobilisation
of domestic resources and foreign portfolio flows.

The AIX is also missioned to host the large scaled
privatisation program of the country’s major national
companies and the first IPOs have already taken place.

We have introduced a number of incentives to
businesses so that it makes sense for them to conduct
their business through the AIFC. For example, all
registered businesses will enjoy a tax holiday for 50
years. So, any firm registering at the AIFC will enjoy tax
benefits till 2066. Besides, our Financial Centre, being
a separate legal jurisdiction, enjoys a simplified labour
and company registration process. Through our singlewindow system, the new businesses do not have to go
through various government offices and departments,
but rather, we have ensured that all the services are
offered under one single roof. Establishment of the
AIFC Expat Centre provides a one-stop-shop for
visa issuance, registration and work permits. It also
provides favourable entry and stay conditions for
foreign guests.

In this regard, I am truly grateful to our First President
and the incumbent President of Kazakhstan who have
supported us in all our endeavour to make AIFC as a
business-friendly regime.

We have introduced
a regulatory sandbox to
ensure that technological
advancements and
innovations are encouraged
rather than hindered at the
AIFC.

ISFIRE: Thank you Excellency, could you elaborate on why one would prefer the AIFC over other
competing financial centres?

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: There are numerous reasons
for financial firms to choose the AIFC. Number one,
Kazakhstan as a country offers huge opportunities,
not only within the country itself but also in the region.
We are the largest economy in the Central Asia, both
in absolute terms and in per capita income. Domiciling
a business here offers easy regional access. Number
two, we are the only financial hub of its kind in the
region, as no other country in the Central Asia have
even embarked upon such an approach. So, we shall
always remain ahead of the game. The AIFC will
continue to benefit from the first-mover advantage.
Number three, we are not here to compete with other
financial centres. Rather, we take a complimentary
approach. We shall never attempt to compete with, for example, DIFC. On the contrary, we take a cooperative
approach by welcoming financial firms based in New
York, London, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur to also have
cost-effective presence in Nur-Sultan. It is a winwin situation when we take a complimentary view
on our competitors. Our approach has already won
us accolade on a global level. Global Islamic Finance
Awards, for example, recognised our efforts by way
of presenting us three prestigious awards at its last
annual awards ceremony held in Sarajevo, BosniaHerzegovina.

ISFIRE: You have already pre-empted our next
question. Please feed us with your success at Global
Islamic Finance Awards (GIFA).
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: I must emphasise that the
AIFC is not just about Islamic finance but rather
we are a financial centre focusing on all aspects of
financial business. Islamic finance, nevertheless,
attracts our special attention. Back in 2016, I received
GIFA Excellence Award at Jakarta in the presence
of President Joko Widodo of Indonesia. This award
necessarily recognised the excellent approach we had
adopted to develop a state-of-the-art financial centre
in the Central Asian region. Last year, the AIFC was
chosen to receive Islamic Finance Advocacy Award
(Institutional). It was a proud moment for me to receive
this recognition in the presence of His Excellency Bakir
Izzatbegovic, President of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and His
Excellency Ismail Omar Guelleh, President of Djibouti. I
am also happy that our Head of Islamic Finance, Alibek
Nurbekov, was honoured as the Upcoming Personality
in Islamic Finance. It is so good to have some of the
ablest people in the field working for you!

In September 2017, we were the proud hosts of GIFA
in Nur-Sultan where our First President was the Chief
Guest. This was a special occasion for us as the top
leaders in Islamic banking and finance from around the
world visited the country. His Excellency Omer Ismail
Guelleh, President of Djibouti, was bestowed upon
the top award – Global Leadership in Islamic Finance
Award 2017. His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev
presented the award. In 2018, we participated in GIFA
Awards Ceremony held in Bosnia-Herzegovina and
received three prestigious awards.

ISFIRE: FinTech is in vogue, with hardly any
conference, seminar or any professional gathering
missing out a discussion, debate or reference to it. At
the AIFC, how have you managed to keep yourselves
on the forefront of FinTech?

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: We are very open to developing a conducive regulatory framework for technology
firms in banking and finance. In this respect, we
have introduced a regulatory sandbox to ensure
that technological advancements and innovations
are encouraged rather than hindered at the AIFC.
Moreover, we have established the AIFC Fintech
Hub, which supports Fintech start-ups in the areas of
incubation and acceleration programmes, workshops
and seminars, informal meetings for the Fintech
community, training and Fintech courses on advanced
techniques, consulting and mentoring, assistance in
presenting the project to foreign partners, participation
of Kazakhstani start-ups in international conferences
and exhibitions. An important area of work will also be
to attract successful foreign Fintech start-ups to the
region and help in building partnerships with the local
financial ecosystem.

ISFIRE: As an emerging financial centre, what kind of challenges you face internally and externally?

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: I don’t think it is appropriate to
talk about the challenges once you have successfully
gone through them. We had our fair share of
challenges that kept us busy in the last three years or
so. More importantly, we are fortunate to have a very
understanding government that has gone an extra mile
to accommodate the AIFC in its existing regime in such
a way that our businesses are governed in accordance
with the best international practices and the English
Common law.

ISFIRE: Attracting 200 companies in a short span
of time is a huge achievement. Congratulations! For
the benefit of our readers can you please elaborate on what have been done in terms of development of
Islamic finance and what other areas of the financial
market the AIFC aims to develop?

Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: The aim of the AIFC is to
support sustainable economic growth and foster the
development of financial services in the region. We
focus on enhancing growth, carrying out main strategic
pillars such as capital markets, asset management,
private banking, financial technology, green finance,
and we pay a great deal of attention to Islamic finance.

Islamic finance has a huge potential for development
in the region. Since the potential market for Shari’acompliant services in the Eurasian region is affected
not only by large underserved Muslim populations
(exceeding 80 million people and projected to grow
up to 100 million people by 2030) but also a direct
link between Islamic finance and real economy. Assetbacked financing and risk-sharing feature of Islamic
finance could provide support for small and medium–
sized enterprises (SME), as well as investment in public
infrastructure. Given the prohibition of speculation
and uncertainty, Islamic financial institutions enhance
financial stability and provide sustainable economic
growth.

With that in mind, we have worked closely with the
Asian Development Bank to create a favourable legal
and regulatory environment on Islamic finance and
banking, takaful and Islamic capital market. We have
created conditions for Islamic securities to be issued on
the AIX and the first sukuk issuances are in the pipeline.
Up to date, AIFC has created a legal framework for the
Islamic financial industry in accordance with the best
Islamic finance practices and principles.

We are further developing the Islamic finance
ecosystem and currently in the framework of the
IsDB Technical Assistance Grant we are developing
Kazakhstan’s Islamic Finance Master Plan. Besides, our
close cooperation with the IsDB Group is supported
by the AIFC’s role as the IsDB Governor office for
Kazakhstan, as I am the official representative of
Kazakhstan in the Board of Governors of the IsDB
Group, which allows us to effectively coordinate the
IsDB projects in Kazakhstan. In addition, President of
the IsDB Group Dr. Bandar Hajjar is the member of the
AIFC Management Council.

To promote the AIFC as a regional hub for Islamic
finance, we have established the AIFC Advisory Council
on Islamic Finance. The Council includes top-notch
and highly reputable international experts with a great
expertise and vast experience in the field of Islamic
finance. We have also launched the AIFC Central Shariah Advisory Board which consists of renown
Shari’a scholars and who will further enhance the
credibility of the industry. For the further development
of Islamic finance legislation, representatives of the
AIFC joined the Technical Committee of the Islamic
Financial Services Board (IFSB), as well as working
groups on the development of IFSB standards.

As a result, the initiatives undertaken by the AIFC in
the promotion and development of Islamic finance
have improved the ranking of Kazakhstan from the
31st in 2017 to the 24th in 2018 according to the
Global Islamic Finance Report’s (GIFR 2018) Islamic
Finance Country Index. I am proud to say that
Kazakhstan holds the leading position in the Islamic
Finance sector according to Thomson Reuters and
Dinar Standard’s the Global Islamic Economy Indicator
among the nine post-Soviet countries. We are pleased
with the developments so far, and we are looking into
the future with an optimism.

ISFIRE: If we may quote Forbes Magazine, it states:
“[AIFC] has everything. It wants to be everything.”
Don’t you think that it is a bit too ambitious?
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: Ambition breeds progress. I
don’t think we are overly ambitious though. Having
said that, the statement by Forbes Magazine
dramatises our situation. We have never claimed to
have everything, and we don’t want to be everything.
As I said earlier, we focus on six areas, i.e., Capital
Markets, Asset Management, FinTech, Islamic Finance,
Private Banking and Green Finance. It is also true that
this is something we have never tried in Kazakhstan
before. We were encouraged by the success of similar
financial centres in the world, and we believe that we
can do it best in our own region. As the strongest
economy in the region, we are all out to build a global
city in the form of Nur-Sultan. The AIFC will feature
prominently in this success story

ISFIRE: One thing that impresses everyone is the
quality of your team and their dedication to the work.
How have you managed to develop such a wonderful
team?
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov:
Kazakhstan is blessed with
high-quality human resources. There is a world-class
Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan. Also, right from the beginning we decided to invest in our people. The
investment is paying off, as my staff is respected for
their professionalism and commitment to work. This
is part of our plan to develop a new breed of young
and energetic professionals in banking and finance.
For the purposes of developing human capital and
forming pool of professionals in different aspects of
financial market, we have established the Bureau for
Continuing Professional Development. The Bureau
has selected top programmes from international
certification and education institutions and organises
trainings for local community and professionals. We
also collaborate with top institutions specialising in
Islamic finance trainings such as Bahrain Institute of
Banking and Finance (BIBF), Chartered Institute for
Securities and Investments (CISI), Accounting and
Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions
(AAOIFI), General Council for Islamic Banks and
Financial Institutions (CIBAFI), Cambridge Institute of
Islamic Finance (CIIF), Finance Accreditation Agency
(FAA), Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI),
and International Centre for Education in Islamic
Finance (INCEIF).

ISFIRE: Any message for the professionals in Islamic banking and finance?
Dr. Kairat Kelimbetov: Islamic finance provides
additional sources of financing, investment portfolio
diversification, enhances financial inclusion and fosters
innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in financial
services industry. During the recent global financial
crisis, Islamic banks showed greater resilience and
stability compared to conventional banks due to the
nature of Shari’a principles applied by Islamic banks.
In this regard, Islamic banking and finance industry
is becoming one of the essential elements of the
global financial architecture. I would like to advise the
professionals in the field to remain committed to the
cause of Islamic banking and finance. This is certainly
going to pay dividends to your investment in the
profession.

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