Case Study: Al Salam Bank

A summer internship that began as a CSR initiative proved to be a worthy investment amid the global shortage of Islamic banking professionals

In an industry as young, fragmented and fast-growing as Islamic banking, competition for skilled individuals will inevitably become intense. And Al Salam Bank Bahrain BSC knows this only too well, operating from a relatively isolated country where only a handful of educational institutes specialise in the discipline.

“In Bahrain, the number of Islamic banking professionals is very limited considering the geographical area. So when you have high-performing individuals, they can be easily taken,” says Muna Al Balooshi, group head of human resources at Al Salam Bank.

The nascence of the sector also means that new recruits are difficult to find. “There is a general lack of local, qualified people in certain areas, such as in Shari’ah, and in Islamic banking you have to be compliant with Shari’ah. We as HR people seriously have to look around when recruiting Bahrainis.”

According to the Gulf Talent Survey of HR managers, 55 per cent of Bahraini employers reported nationalisation as a key human resource challenge in 2014. Nevertheless, Al Salam retains a high ratio of nationals; out of 378 personnel, 89 per cent are Bahrainis. This can be largely attributed to the bank’s annual summer internships, which often lead to graduate placements. Although the training programme began as a social responsibility initiative, it rapidly evolved into an integral component of Al Salam’s HR strategy.

Every year, the bank targets fresh graduates across local and international universities, with priority given to the University of Bahrain. “As the only government university in the country, we have to support them,” says Al Balooshi. “We coordinate with their student counselling office, which each semester asks us to allocate a number of seats for its graduates. We then check with all departments how many trainees they need, before assigning them to the relevant department.”

A crucial goal for Al Salam is that its interns get “real” training, by understanding exactly what their department is doing. “If we place a trainee in corporate or retail banking, we ensure he or she leaves with a good background knowledge of that department’s role within the bank,” says Al Balooshi. “We don’t rotate trainees, because two months is a short time do that. The department needs them to be there for the entire period so they can complete the tasks assigned to them.”

Awareness sessions, on the other hand, introduce the interns to Islamic banking functions such as Shari’ah, treasury and capital markets, compliance and anti-money laundering, credit and market risk, internal audit – practices which, according to Al Balooshi, are not extensively taught in universities.

Most Islamic banks today are less than 40 years old. Al Salam only turned nine this year, yet the bank has already raised the largest initial public offering in the country’s history, surpassing $7 billion, and acquired BMI Bank, the Bahraini affiliate of Oman’s Bank Muscat. Such explosive growth led to a demand for more interns.

From just five in 2007, the programme hosted 30 trainees in 2015. Altogether, the bank has trained more than 250 people, the majority of them nationals. “Al Salam has always been a pioneer in developing young Bahrainis,” says Al Balooshi. “If we as bankers were not supportive and closed our doors, where will these graduates go and how will they get their banking experience?”