x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The ABCs of financial literacy in the UAE

The importance of financial literacy is beginning to take hold in the Emirates. A few banks have introduced (or are introducing) financial literacy campaigns to help educate their customers.

Gary Clement for The National
Gary Clement for The National

I was beginning to wonder just how much longer I'd be banging my head against a brick wall when it came to smart-money skills in the UAE.

For a while there, my efforts appeared futile. No matter how much I highlighted the problem, I was always left wondering if anybody was paying attention. Why? Because I continued to see the same mistakes being made. Over and over and over again.

Would there come a time when everybody would wake up and understand that financial illiteracy is unacceptable in this day and age?

Would everybody realise that there's no excuse not to take the initiative and empower themselves and their financial futures?

Financial illiteracy is one of the most important (and frightening) issues to emerge from the global financial crisis, which has served to highlight not only the cracks in the global financial system, but also that there are many millions of people who don't understand even the most basic concepts of money management.

It doesn't matter where you are from. Collectively our financial literacy skills are severely lacking and many people have paid a very high price for not knowing how to make smart financial decisions.

But - and here's the good news - some people are paying attention and the importance of financial literacy is beginning to take hold in the Emirates.

A few banks have realised that irresponsible lending will do nothing for their bottom lines. So they have introduced (or are introducing) financial literacy campaigns to help educate their customers.

But probably the biggest breakthrough of late is that Al Hilal Bank, the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic lender, has signed a deal with Emirates National Schools to teach financial literacy in Islamic finance to 5,800 students in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

Visa Middle East is also in discussions with the Ministry of Education to introduce a multi-language financial curriculum into schools.

These initiatives couldn't have come at a better time, more so that a new study, Investigating Financial Literacy Among Emiratis, has found that financial literacy continues to be a problem.

Conducted by four professors at Abu Dhabi University in Al Ain, their aim was to assess the financial literacy and decision-making skills of Emiratis. Yes, it is a small study - 200 people were surveyed - but they did uncover some interesting information.

Probably the most surprising is that 42 per cent of the respondents said they had borrowed money from family and friends rather than a bank, while 22 per cent said they had taken out a bank loan.

This indicates that debt among Emiratis goes a lot deeper than previously thought, say two of the study's authors, Ashraf Khalil, an assistant professor in computer science, and Salam Abdallah, an associate professor in information systems.

"Most of the studies just look at banks," says Mr Khalil. "The amount from the banks is not going to cover everything because 42 per cent borrow from friends, whereas 22 per cent borrow from banks, which is almost double the number.

"We don't know how much they borrow from people, but, of course, the percentage is very high and it seems the problem is more substantial than it is right now."

Mr Khalil says the trend for Emiratis to borrow from family and friends is cultural.

"If it is a large amount of money, then they go to the banks," he says. "We believe the first source of borrowing money is a relative and friends. The purpose of the study was to give numbers to people who want to make curriculums and programmes. So we did not look deep into some of the answers as to why they went to friends.

"But we believe it is cultural and we believe as a collective society, people are responsible for sticking to each other. But we don't know how severe it is or what happens if you don't pay it back."

The study also asked the respondents to answer a few simple financial literacy questions.

I thought you might want to try them, too:

What is a credit card?

a) A card used to deduct money from my bank account when I purchase items.

b) A card used to borrow money from the bank when I purchase items.

c) I do not know.

What is a debit card?

a) A card used to deduct money from my bank account when I purchase items.

b) A card used to borrow money from the bank when I purchase items.

c) I do not know.

Let's assume that you saw TV sets of the same model on sale in two different shops. The initial retail price was Dh1,000. One shop offered a discount of Dh100, while the other one offered a 15 per cent discount. Which one is a better bargain?

a) A discount of Dh100.

b) A 15 per cent discount.

c) The same.

d) Not sure.

Imagine that you deposited money in a bank account at 8 per cent interest, while the annual inflation rate was 10 per cent. Do you think the money from your account can buy:

a) More than a year ago.

b) The same.

c) Less than a year ago.

d) Not sure.

Let's assume that in 2014 your income is twice as it is now and the consumer prices also doubled. Do you think that in 2014 you will be able to buy:

a) More than today.

b) Exactly the same.

c) Less than today.

d) Not sure.

According to Mr Khalil, just one person out of the 200 respondents answered all five questions correctly, while only 35 per cent were able to answer three or more correctly.

"We had five questions and everybody who is financially literate should be able to answer these questions," he says.

"We thought they were the most basic questions everybody could understand to make financial decisions, but only one person out of all of the respondents answered them all correctly."

At the end of the day, it is about going back to the ABCs of financial literacy. Starting from the beginning and introducing it into our children's lives as early as possible. That means parents need to get involved, as do schools and the Government. As Mr Khalil says, financial literacy is as basic as reading and writing and should be a part of a child's development process.

In the meantime, let me know how you went with the answers (I purposely left them out so there'd be no cheating).

fglover@thenational.ae