x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Banking on country's future

40 years of the UAE: In the early 1970s, one of the quickest ways to get ahead - whether learning English or figuring out the world of business - was by joining British Bank of the Middle East.

In the 1970s, banks like the National Bank of Dubai along Dubai Creek, seen here in the background, were places where customers were just as likely to go to learn English as they were to deposit money.
In the 1970s, banks like the National Bank of Dubai along Dubai Creek, seen here in the background, were places where customers were just as likely to go to learn English as they were to deposit money.

Just a few decades ago, a tin box was used to store hard-earned cash, but banks began to spring up all over the country, giving workers a safe place to leave money and others a place in which to earn it. Gregor Hunter reports

At the age of 11, Ammar Shams had a good grasp of languages and quick arithmetic skills. One summer in the early 1970s, his father decided he might make a good banker.

Through a contact, he helped his son to find a summer job at British Bank of the Middle East.

When young Ammar started work at the bank in the summer of 1975, it was highly respected as one of the few international institutions with long standing in the UAE, which was then only four years old.

"If you wanted to know how an organisation should work, you worked for British Bank of the Middle East" is how Mr Shams, now 48, describes his father's thinking.

British Bank of the Middle East played a big role in the education of the future leaders of the UAE, by dint of a virtual monopoly it held on banking services in the country.

Many of the figures who would become leading businessmen in the Emirates passed through the bank's doors, including Easa Al Gurg, a former ambassador to the UK and a prominent businessman, and Abdullah Saleh, governor of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

Mr Shams has returned to banking as the head of sustainability for the region at HSBC Middle East, the successor to British Bank of the Middle East.

But he started work as a clerk, processing bank drafts and telex transfers six days a week, eventually earning the princely sum - for an 11-year-old - of Dh300 a month.

Alongside knowledge of English and Arabic, it was speaking Hindi that most helped him serve the bank's customers, many of whom were illiterate workers from the Indian subcontinent.

He quickly developed a detailed knowledge of almost every village surrounding the city of Trivandram in India as workers flooded into Dubai and sent cash home via the bank's branch in Jumeirah.

His brother had a less cushy time, working from a Portakabin that the bank had set up in the dry docks of Jebel Ali.

"Everything was growing at such a breakneck speed, and it would take a year to build a property that you needed today," Mr Shams says.

Emiratis were rare in the banking industry then, and it was not until 1998 that the Government mandated that the banking sector increase its intake of Emirati employees.

But Dr Ahmed Al Khoori, a 59-year-old resident of Abu Dhabi, recalls how many of his Emirati friends were keen to develop their English skills by working with banks.

"They thought it was good to work in a bank - they had a salary … and they could improve their English," he says.

Compared with much of the flashiness of modern banking, with ubiquitous credit cards and ATMs, Dr Khoory says banks in the 1970s were a more sedate affair.

Even so, they served other roles - people were just as likely to use banks as a place to send and receive telegrams or attend afternoon English classes as to deposit their funds, he says.

"Most people didn't put their money with the bank. The majority of the people kept their money with merchants," he said. "They used to put it in a tin, write their name on it, and kept it in the box."

And in a pre-computerised age, banking was far from speedy.

How long did it take from start to finish to process a customer's request? Mr Shams shudders and places his hands on his head.

"Any one transaction would probably involve about 10 to 15 steps, with at least three officers," he says.

With hindsight, Mr Shams is impressed by the amount of leeway given to an 11-year-old.

"But the checks and balances were always in place - everyone would check," he adds.

Though a single bank service could be completed in about 20 minutes if all of his supervisors were sitting down, that was rare.

More frequently, the young Mr Shams told customers to return in a couple of hours.

ghunter@thenational.ae