x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Keep a firm handle on personal debt in the UAE

High levels of debt among young people represent a worrying trend, one that needs to be urgently addressed. Now, a new initiative has been launched to spread the word on smart money management.

Fadel Al Muhairi at the launch of the Emirates Foundation's financial literacy programme in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National
Fadel Al Muhairi at the launch of the Emirates Foundation's financial literacy programme in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National

Fadel Al Muhairi did not owe a single dirham until he was 30. Three years, one loan and two credit cards later, he is Dh235,000 in debt.

"We have an Arabic saying that the hand that is in the fire is not the same as the hand that is in the water," says the Emirati filmmaker.

"I have always heard about it but thought it wasn't a problem until I really faced it."

Mr Al Muhairi can manage his repayments, but he has a friend, a father of four, who bought a flashy car and struggles to support his family and pay his debts on his Dh8,000 a month salary.

"We all have some debts. But it is how much? That is the question," says Mr Al Muhairi. "Is it manageable? When are you going to pay it and how long will it take until you are done with it? That's the ultimate question, the difference between the person who knows and the person who doesn't know."

Recent figures show a growing number of residents in the UAE are accruing debt. A 2012 survey from The National Family Status Observatory found almost 60 per cent of Emirati families spent about a quarter of their income on loans.

And Central Bank data reveals a 17 per cent growth in personal lending for consumption purposes last year.

"We are all concerned about the growth of personal debt of UAE nationals and its impact on the social fabric," says Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, the chairman of Mashreq, at the launch of Isrif Sah, which means "Spend Right" in English, a financial literacy initiative to tackle the problem.

The programme was devised by the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development, one of the UAE's leading philanthropic organisations, after it discovered many young people like Mr Al Muhairi were spiralling into debt.

"When I was in school in the 1990s no one came and talked to us about that," says Mr Al Muhairi. "The thing that really is different from other cultures and countries which are focusing on this, they are always teaching their young children the importance of saving. It's a culture of saving. That's what we don't have here."

Emirates Foundation spent a year researching debt levels among the nation's youth - all part of the eight-year-old organisation's recent shift from a grant-making foundation that distributed funds to support scientific and social research or education and arts projects, to a venture capital approach initiating projects that bring about social change.

One way to do that is to improve the personal finances of the nation's youth.

"We found there is a lot going on in the UAE in this area, but it tends to be institution-specific. So you might find one or two organisations doing a financial literacy programme but there is no nationwide platform and at Emirates Foundation we are well positioned to operate across the UAE," says Clare Woodcraft-Scott, the chief executive of Emirates Foundation.

There are three components to the programme. Emirates Foundation is currently focusing on the first - building a cadre of 100 Emiratis who will be trained to become expert in personal finance so that they can then help others.

The second part is an outreach programme, with a bus that will tour the UAE, visiting schools, universities and malls. "Finally, we are going to be working with the Ministry of Education to look at how we can integrate some of the concepts of financial literacy into the school curriculum," says Ms Woodcraft-Scott.

Emirates Foundation has teamed up with Operation Hope, a non-governmental organisation based in the United States that is writing the course material for the initiative.

"We start off looking at why you make decisions and how you are influenced by different things," says Mary Hagerty Ehrsam, the president of the youth empowerment group and chief executive of Operation Hope.

The course then moves on to savings accounts and different credit products, distinguishing the difference between what people want and need.

So why are people struggling to manage their money? "It's a different world than it used to be," says Ms Ehrsam. "And the banks have been able to make it easy for individuals. Put less down and get more," she adds.

"Debt is always OK if you're not overextending yourself. There are some people who can walk in and buy a home immediately with cash but at the end of the day, most people need loans for that."