Silk Road financial hub inaugurated in Kazakhstan

President Nazarbayev speaks at AIFC inauguration, on 5 July 2018 in Astana. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report The New Silk Road.

The “Astana International Financial Centre” or AIFC, was inaugurated today (5 July) at a lavish ceremony in the Kazakh capital. Foreign dignitaries stressed the importance of the project to the Chinese-led Belt and Road initiative, which is also referred to as the New Silk Road.

More than 50 countries and international organisations sent representatives at the AIFC inauguration. Many of the foreign speakers stressed that the project is the brainchild of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazabayev.

Nazabayev, who has been the country’s leader since the former Soviet Republic became independent, signed a decree on the establishment of the AIFC in 2015.

The project is compared to global financial centres such as Hong Kong or Singapore. A lot of work was needed, including an amendment of the constitution for creating a “one country – two systems” legal base, attractive for major foreign investment.

The AIFC will be based on English common law jurisdiction and English as working language, as the best way to attract foreign direct investment, and create the best juridical environment in the post-Soviet space. The expectation is that in the next ten years AIFC will become one of the largest Asian financial institutions.

Major plans for Hong Kong-style hub in Central Asia revealed

Wheels are in motion to set up a Hong Kong-type financial hub in Kazakhstan, following the unveiling of plans by the governor of the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) at an international conference marking the 20th anniversary of Astana, on 5 June.

AIFC has created a stock exchange, also inaugurated today, in partnership with Nasdaq and the Shanghai stock exchange. It is expected that in September-October the initial public offering for five major Kazakh companies will begin.

Pride of place was given to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who sat beside the President at the opening ceremony.

The President said that tomorrow the country will mark the 20th anniversary of Astana as capital of the country. 6 July is also his 78th birthday.

“Our country is only 27 years old. In terms of history, this is only a blink. But I think our people made a big step forward in its flourishing. We hope that AIFC will serve the same purpose. On our side, we will make everything so that work for everyone in the Centre will be a pleasure, that business would bring big profits, and that this will be profitable also for Kazakhstan”, the President said.

Astana is making big efforts to accommodate those will work for the AIFC. An Expat Centre was launched to assist the influx of foreigners expected, based on the ‘one-stop-shop’ principle.

AIFC governor Kairat Kelimbetov, who has previously served as deputy Prime Minister and as Chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, said that the project became possible after Nazarbajev met with “the captains of business” in New York and London and personally promoted the project.

“I consider that the task we are given to make Astana an international financial centre in the next 20 years is something we can do”, he said.

Jacob Aharon Frenkel, Chairman of JPMorgan Chase International, said that many had doubts when Nazarbayev took the decision to move the capital to Astana. But he said the pessimists had been proven wrong, as Astana was one of the fastest developing cities in the world. He added that the creation of AIFC would be an equally transformative decision.

Hans-Paul Bürkner, Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, said that AIFC would be another major accelerator for the development of Kazakhstan. He said the AIFC would “leverage the New Silk Road” and “clearly position Kazakhstan as the regional financial centre”.

Bürkner also praised the AIFC for its efforts to develop fintech.

Dr Bandar, Hajjar, President of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), said his institution supported the strategic goals of the Kazakh government, as well as Islamic infrastructure integration. The AIFC would boost international cooperation between Kazakhstan and the IsDB member countries, he said. He added that the AIFC would promote Islamic financing within the Community of Independent States (CIS), a market of former Soviet republics with 180 million people.

The only ‘European’ message was from Sir Suma Chakrabarti,  President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). He said he was confident that the AIFC would contribute to the transparency of the Kazakhstan financial market, in Central Asia, and in the wider region. This is why the EBRD will continue to provide support for the reform agenda of Kazakhstan, he added.

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