The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is home to about 70 million of the world’s poor (living on less than two dollars per day) and 20 million of the world’s extremely poor (living on less than US$1.25 per day). According to a recent Gallup survey, 95 percent of the adults residing in MENA define themselves as religiously observant. The combination of these two facts has produced a growing interest in Islamic finance as a possible tool for reducing poverty through financial inclusion among the region’s religiously conscious Muslim population (see Mohieldin et al. 2011).
Uneven access to financial services and instruments that are compliant with Shari’ah, or Islamic law, could be one of the contributing reasons for the low number of bank accounts in the MENA region. A mere 18 percent of adults (above the age of 15) have accounts in formal financial institutions, the lowest in the world (Figure 1). There is ample evidence that, if done correctly, increasing access to and the use of various financial services can help both reduce poverty and its severity (for example see Burgess and Pande 2005 and Beck, Demirgüç-Kunt and Levine 2007 among many). With no access to financial services, many of the poor in MENA will continue to be trapped in poverty with little to no chance of escaping it in the foreseeable future.