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Banks willing to help solve problems

In some cases the banks are willing to negotiate settlements, either through a consolidation loan or an agreement to accept less than the entire amount owed.

A frustrating element for many consumers facing financial difficulties has long been the sense that neither banks nor their employers offer much flexibility when it comes to finding a solution.

That is slowly beginning to change.

"The banks appear to be more willing to sit down and discuss what can be done," says Steve Gregory, a financial adviser with Holborn Assets in Dubai. "They are being much more pragmatic. Things are starting to get better."

Mr Gregory says that in some cases the banks are willing to negotiate settlements, either through a consolidation loan or an agreement to accept less than the entire amount owed if the borrower can demonstrate extreme circumstances.

Indeed, late last year HSBC established a special division devoted to negotiating with customers facing debt problems. A spokeswoman says the bank devises options on a case-by-case basis, but aspires to "understand the problem and propose the right solution for them".

"Some customers are worried and may be reluctant to contact us," the HSBC spokeswoman says. "However, we would always recommend that they call us as soon as possible. Our experience is that early contact gives us a much better opportunity to help the customer."

Last month, Emirates NBD, the largest bank in the country by assets, became one of a small number of local banks to offer an overdraft facility designed to protect consumers from negative consequences in case they bounce a cheque. The bank also says it has launched a "Borrow Wisely" campaign to help educate consumers about their borrowing decisions.

In a statement, the bank says it is "committed to assisting all customers who seek the bank's advice when they find themselves in difficult financial situations".

Several other banks declined to comment on the issue, but anecdotal evidence suggests the trend is not limited to the two banks.

In addition, employers are playing a larger role in retaining valued employees. The ISDM programme is one example, but Mr Gregory says employees should consider approaching employers on their own when money issues start to mount.

In several recent cases, Mr Gregory says, employers have agreed to advance employees a portion of their end-of-service gratuities to help them with short-term financial problems.

"It always makes sense to go to your employer if you are having a problem," he says.

Some charitable organisations, including Red Crescent, have also stepped forward to help some of those who are in dire financial need.

breagan@thenational.ae

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