ABU DHABI // The Ministry of Economy yesterday began its annual battle to stop shopkeepers from using the Holy Month to raise prices.
The first step, its inspectors at Abu Dhabi's fruit and vegetable market at Al Meena found, was getting stallholders to be clear about what those prices actually were.
Many, they found, were not properly displaying the cost of produce.
"Every year, it's the same problem," said Dr Hashim Al Nuaimi, the head of consumer protection at the ministry, as he toured the market. "What matters to me is that a price must be displayed to the consumer, otherwise, it is considered illegal."
Although most prices were acceptable, tomatoes were slightly costlier than expected. At one stall, a medium carton of tomatoes was priced at Dh20.
"Before Ramadan, this was Dh35," said Dr Al Nuaimi. "It's not a bad price but it is higher than other fruits and vegetables, so it should still go down during this month of Ramadan."
At another stall, an 8-kilogram bag of potatoes was Dh22, while a small carton of okra cost Dh10. Nearby, two handfuls of parsley were Dh2.
"These are good prices," said Dr Al Nuaimi.
But most produce bore no clear price tags. At the next stall, a shopkeeper's unpriced tomatoes cost him his licence.
"He just put a Dh35 price tag on his carton of tomatoes when I arrived - this is a punishable offence because he didn't put it [up] earlier.
"The need to display prices is crucial because when they sell produce to locals, they drastically increase the price and that's not fair."
A lack of price tags also cost the Ali Al Romathi stand its licence. A neighbouring stall also left its courgettes, melons, watermelons, apricots and onions unpriced.
"Nobody put a price on anything here, this is illegal," shouted Dr Al Nuaimi to the shopkeepers.
Almost all the stalls were as bad. "These peaches, watermelons, pears and raisins have no prices and shopkeepers keep disappearing. This is unacceptable," said Dr Al Nuaimi, pointing at the Manwa Vegetables and Fruits stand.
But sellers insisted most unpriced items were new arrivals.
"I just received these watermelons and haven't had time to put any price on them," said Alaa Mohammed, the stand's shopkeeper, after handing over his licence to Dr Al Nuaimi. "We all know we have to put price tags on every item."
The Emirates Vegetables, Fruits and Foodstuff stand had no prices on its cabbages, lettuces, peppers and onions.
Still, Dr Al Nuaimi said the situation was better than last year.
"I am very tough on this and I will issue fines because they all know that it is Ramadan season and prices must be low. The ministry doesn't allow high prices."
Of the market's 115 shops, 11 had their licences confiscated by the Department of Economic Development (Ded). "We gave them a warning for now," said Mahmoud Al Baloushi, the head of consumer protection at Ded. "But we will send another inspector at night or the next morning to check if sellers have respected our orders."
If not, they will be fined between Dh5,000 and Dh100,000.
"They have to know they're wrong, you can't write the price on the carton, you need a proper tag," said Dr Al Nuaimi. "What matters to me is that a price is displayed."
The ministry will continue its tour of the markets during the Holy Month.
Customers who feel they have been overcharged should call the ministry's consumer protection hotline on 600 522225 or the Ded on 800 8811 between 9am and 3pm during Ramadan.