x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In survey-addicted UAE, can honest statistics exist?

Conclusions drawn from opinion surveys depend on many factors, not all of them leading straight to accurate understanding.

Scarcely a week goes by, it seems, without a story appearing in the media which purports to tell us something about a particular aspect of this country - what we think, what we do, how we live, what our aspirations are. It's good business, I'm sure, for the companies who carry out these opinion surveys, and there's usually a finding that prompts an attractive headline.

But I do wonder sometimes whether the underlying statistics are, intentionally or not, misleading.

This week's survey, released to coincide with "UAE Saves Week", being promoted by a company that calls itself "the Arab world's first social media platform dedicated to how money affects our lives", was the focus of a press release which had the headline Financial pressures biggest source of stress in the UAE. Apparently, over a third of those questioned said money worries and debt were their biggest source of stress, followed by work and relationship problems.

That may well be the case, but if one looks more closely at the data, a number of issues arise.

Questions on how much people save from their monthly income and on how long people could survive on their current level of savings produced some worrying results. For instance, apparently 31 per cent save nothing and 25 per cent wouldn't be able to survive even for a month on their savings. That's all grist to the mill of those, like the survey's sponsors, who want to promote greater financial responsibility, a worthy objective if it weren't so convenient for Cashy. me to claim.

How broadly, though, can these results be applied across society as a whole? The survey says that expatriates from the West save most, with Emiratis and Arab expatriates saving "significantly less". And what about other communities?

Over half of the country's population is made up of Asian nationals, predominantly low-paid employees, in the construction industry and elsewhere. Are figures relating to them of no significance? How are "savings" defined, anyway? Do they include the money saved from salaries to send home, to the tune, overall, of billions of dirhams a year? Some of that, certainly, is to pay for the expenses of families, but, as villages in Pakistan, India and the Philippines display, a lot of money is remitted for investment in property, and that applies to other communities, too.

We're told that a total of 733 people took part in the survey, 510 of them in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the remainder in the other emirates. Exactly where in the other emirates is not clear. In the capital cities or in other places? Nor is there any indication of breakdown by nationality in any of these places, which, surely, is of some relevance.

And here's another questionable data point: 38 per cent of UAE residents "have credit card debt". Including the low-paid construction labourers? Debt, possibly, but on credit cards? The Central Bank must have figures for how many credit cards have been issued in the UAE - I doubt if it's equivalent to 38 per cent of the total population, without allowing for those who have multiple cards.

Finally, how were the members of the "online panel" in this survey selected? The UAE may be one of the most connected countries in the world, but I doubt whether many of the country's construction labourers have the ability to be questioned online, quite apart from any difficulties of language that may arise, such as little or no knowledge of either Arabic or English.

I don't question the nature of the responses cited in the survey, which was carried out by a highly-respectable company. But I do wonder whether results like these can ever be broadly applied across the country, since there is absolutely no indication of the composition of the "online panel".

I'm reminded of the phrase popularised by Mark Twain: "Lies, damned lies and statistics". In other words, statistics can be used to support just about any claim if they're used in the right way.

I'm all in favour of people being encouraged to save and I'm sure that "UAE Saves Week" is, in the broader sense, a good idea. I'd be happier, though, if those promoting it were a little more transparent about what their figures actually represent.

We may not all be wizards with statistics, but that doesn't mean we can't be sceptical when numbers come our way.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture