x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Where were the great services when I was poor?

Comment I have always been relatively sensible with money, as it is very difficult to be frivolous with something you don't have.

I have always been relatively sensible with money, as it is very difficult to be frivolous with something you don't have. The way I handle my finances is simple: pay my mortgage in the UK every month, take care of my bills and try to eliminate my pesky credit card balance. Until recently there was never anything more to it. As I said, it's easy to manage smaller quantities than it is large. If you can't invest in stocks, you can't go bankrupt when a global financial crisis blows apart the world economy, can you?

So when my financial situation turned on its head last month I was thrown into a new world, one reserved for those who have money rather than those who don't. It is a world that is never spoken about at dinner parties, and those who live in it generally like to hide its existence. There is a sort of rule, similar to that famous line in the film Fight Club, "the first rule of Fight Club, is don't talk about Fight Club."

To qualify for a HSBC Premier account, you need to maintain Dh350,000 in either deposits and investments or a combination of the two. Or you need to have a mortgage of Dh500,000 with HSBC UAE. It is for the elite, and I am now one of them. I have been upgraded to the new world of the HSBC Premier account. The money is actually an investment, a lump sum from a family member that I am meant to keep in trust, and I can't touch a dirham. So in reality, I am no better off than I was before.

But to HSBC it doesn't matter. To them, I am now worthy of some decent customer service, and weirdly, some free stuff, even though on paper I am better able to afford the "stuff" than I was before. My step up in the financial world has literally given me a whole new perspective, and if I'm being honest, I don't much like it. I am annoyed that before, when I really needed an HSBC customer service representative on the phone, they weren't there for me. Or rather they were, but I had to play a game of hide and seek by entering as many wrong digits on the phone pad as I could before the frustrated-sounding automated voice system would finally transfer me to a real human being.

I also resented queuing for 40 minutes to transfer my money home to cover my mortgage payments. And another thing, why did I have to visit two different branches and wait an entire month before collecting my ATM, credit card and PIN because of a "miscommunication" when I first opened my regular account? When I moved to the UAE at the start of 2008, setting up a bank account was a priority, as I wouldn't be paid without it. I trundled off to HSBC armed with my passport, a letter from my company telling the nice people at the bank that I earned "X" amount, and a load of good ideas about saving.

After about an hour I was the proud owner of one very, very cheap-looking ATM card. For starters, it was matte grey - quite possibly the least inspiring colour and design ever. It was embarrassing. I could have had a million dirhams in the bank and still felt cheap. The credit card, on the other hand, was shiny gold, and a lot more respectable looking. The cynic in me thinks there must be some clever HSBC card designer who wants to shame people into using the shiny gold card (thus getting in debt and paying fees), rather than withdrawing cash with the ugly grey one. My new credit and ATM card, however, are much prettier. This makes a big difference, I swear. Although all four cards still work, I find myself assessing which one to use by establishing how I will be judged by the cashier. For example, I took a friend out for a birthday meal in Dubai this week to a rather exclusive restaurant. At the end of the meal, I couldn't face handing over my battered, albeit shiny gold, Visa, so instead I proudly produced my HSBC Premier MasterCard to settle the bill. I very much doubt it made the blindest bit of difference to the waiter, and it was certainly too late to influence the service we were given. But it just felt good.

If I'm honest, I do feel slightly superior now, although I know I shouldn't. But when you're treated special, you feel special. I now have my own personal finance adviser (who has yet to realise I don't need him, as my money won't be going anywhere other than out of my account and into a property). Queuing in the bank is also a thing of the past. In Abu Dhabi, I have an exclusive membership to the HSBC Premier building (yes, it's not just a separate room, it's a completely separate building). I am served tea and coffee, and I am welcomed when I walk in.

Like I said, I feel special. The game of hide and seek with the telephone people is also a thing of the past. I dial the secret phone number, press one for English and then embark on an easy and enjoyable transaction with a gentleman or lady on the end of the phone. Strangely, I am less excited by the more financial-driven incentives to choose HSBC. For example, I get free airport transfers when I book with certain companies, free card insurance, travel insurance, access to the Marhaba Lounge at Dubai International Airport, two-for-one cinema tickets, 50 per cent discount at designer stores and travel promotions such as free hotel rooms.

The list goes on and on. And although I'm very pleased to be entitled to all this, I am still a little angry by the whole thing. Nothing has changed. Yes, I have a lump sum in my account that alerted HSBC to my elevated status. But I am in no more need of free cinema tickets now than I was a month ago. In fact, I would have been much more grateful for them before. The same applies to the travel offers and the shopping discounts. I suppose it's the same with everything - rich people get things they don't need.

I really think the whole process should be reversed. Give the less rich people the better service, help them trust the banking system and then maybe, just maybe, they will be better with their finances and the banks will have more people to entice with helpful phone staff and free cinema tickets. munderwood@thenational.ae