x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Our columnist says it is just too easy for Emiratis to fall into debt.

Each New Year’s Eve I find it fascinating to see what people have planned for next year. Going regularly to the gym and eating properly tops the list of some of my friends. But a common goal for so many people is to fix their finances.

A while ago, a friend and I were having a discussion about wants and needs. Back in school, teachers asked us to differentiate between the two. I define them as follows: a need is something we cannot live without – such as water, air and food. While a want is something we desire, but could forgo, such as an extra pair of earrings or shiny rain boots.

Following the discussion with my friend, and looking back at our debate, it shocks me how the line between the two terms is completely blurred for some Emirati youth.

In the past taking a loan from a bank was not an option, because it was not available. Our elderly shied away from borrowing money from wealthy merchants and tribe leaders, and only resorted to it when all means, such as selling precious items or asking a relative for help, were exhausted.

But that was then. Today there are countless number of bank advertisements begging us to consider a personal loan– and borrowing has never been easier.

In fact, some banks promise that the whole loan process can be completed within 48 hours – faster than having an item ordered online delivered expressly to your doorstep.

The words “personal loans” have become synonymous with Emirati youth, and numerous newspaper articles have discussed this very alarming issue.

Young adults are turning to luxury items such as sports cars, exotic leather wear and extravagant holidays to weave into their upwardly social status, and are living way beyond their means. But with banks competing to make loans, it is as easy counting 1,2,3 for customers to take them out.

An estimated 70 per cent of Emiratis under the age of 30 are in debt. According to the Central Bank, the number of Emiratis who took out personal loans from banks for consumption purposes rose 17.4 per cent in 2012.

We are more than blessed to be living in a country where our Government is compassionate. It ordered that the debts of more than 6,000 Emiratis in 2012 be cleared. About Dh2billion has been set aside for this initiative.

In return, debtors agree to have 25 per cent of their salaries deducted to repay their loans back to the Government and pledge not to be indebted again until the repayments are finished.

But did it really have to come to this? I am in no way against taking out loans especially when it comes to financing a necessity such as a house, and I understand that in some cases it is the best or the only option available. But I believe that it should be done in a sensible manner. We cannot have the Government bailing us out every time.

So what can be done? I believe that when addressing any situation, we have to look at the root causes. Just with any other skills we take on growing up, the best learning starts early at school.

Finance is a huge component of our lives, and we learn about money from an early age, ever since we started receiving Eid cash, and taking trips to the grocery story.

We need to have a finance literacy programme implemented across all schools, where Emiratis at a young age are taught about money, managing it, and everything they need to know about loans and money-lending facilities. It should not stop at that, but be continued throughout college, until it is embedded in the sub-conscious.

Some programmes have been implemented and one is by the Emirates Foundation, a national initiative that promotes youth development. It launched Isrif-Sah, which translates to Spend Right, a programme whose aims include a mentorship scheme, a community outreach initiative, and will include a campaign that will promote finance education to be included in government schools’ curriculums.

This is great, and we need to have similar programmes implemented across all schools as part of the curriculum. We also need more nationwide campaigns about financial literacy and the consequences of falling in debt.

Given the severity of the situation, and the need to change our mindset, a mass awareness will not take place overnight. But it is comforting to remember that it is never to late to change.

With the right push, we can ever get there faster.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati writer and fashion designer. Follow her on Twitter @manar_alhinai