A satirical representation by Emirati performers of credit card-fuelled excess in the UAE is part of a government initiative to raise awareness about the dangers of overborrowing.
Making a drama out of borrowing
An Emirati man sits with his wife as she pours him a cup of Arabic coffee after they have broken their fast. But their tranquility is shattered by the engine roar of a brand new Dh500,000 Range Rover.
Out struts their son, beaming at his personal loan-funded wheels. Then in walks his brother with an iPad hanging from a gold chain around his neck and clutching the latest Galaxy smartphone - all paid with plastic.
Their father looks on in despair as one of the sons tells him: "There's a new trend in Abu Dhabi: if you're not in debt, then you're not Emirati."
This satirical representation by Emirati performers of credit card-fuelled excess in the UAE is part of a government initiative to raise awareness about the dangers of overborrowing. The show by Stage Stars entertained the crowds at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel in Abu Dhabi this week. But the message was serious - borrowers beware of amassing more credit than you can handle. The audience included representatives from the Central Bank and the country's local lender Al Hilal Bank, as well as several indebted Emirati nationals who had come together in an open forum organised by the Department of Economic Development.
Abu Ali (not his full name), an indebted national, was one of the participants. His story highlights the plight of many of his peers saddled with debts they are unable to repay. Seven years ago, he was offered a commercial loan by a local bank to a value of Dh1 million even though he did not have his own business. He has since struggled to keep up with the payments, which amount to Dh14,000 a month.
After the Government established the Dh10 billion Nationals' Defaulted Debts Settlement Fund in 2011 that enabled individual clients to restructure their debt, he asked his bank for help.
"They said they would extend the maturity to 20 years and add Dh350,000 to the principal amount. I refused because it would essentially wipe out the last seven years of instalments I've paid. I'll take some responsibility for this loan, but the bank should have inquired for proof that I have a company, at least a registration," he said. "How did they disburse me a commercial loan without me giving them any documentation that I run a business of some sort?"
The forum offered an opportunity for Abu Ali to discuss his debt issues with a Central Bank official on the sidelines of the event.
Efforts to prevent UAE nationals from taking on too much debt have taken on an extra degree of urgency in the aftermath of the financial crisis, as the housing market recovers and consumer confidence strengthens.
The Nationals' Defaulted Debts Settlement Fund has helped restructure the debts of Emirati borrowers and put their financial affairs on a more sustainable track.
Debt relief efforts have also included a presidential decree last October that immunised Emiratis from serving jail time for bounced cheques, resulting in the release of more than 1,000 defaulters from prison.
The operational trials of the Al Etihad Credit Bureau, expected to begin this month, are expected to help banks to better identify customers who pose a high credit risk and reveal those who owe multiple debts to several banks.
The play, meanwhile, ends with the father telling the audience: "Abu Dhabi is ranked among the wealthiest cities per capita. You don't need to be in debt. Spend wisely."
It is not so much the tale of the prodigal son as the profligate sons.