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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The time for change in the UAE has arrived and we sure do need a lot of it

The introduction of VAT shed the spotlight on the importance of coins in our daily lives

Prices rise in Abu Dhabi as consumer inflation hits 3.9 per cent. Silvia Razgova / The National
Prices rise in Abu Dhabi as consumer inflation hits 3.9 per cent. Silvia Razgova / The National

I experienced my second Mexican stand-off this week. Just as my taxi rolled into the driveway of my workplace at Khalifa Park, the counter clicked past Dh31 to Dh31.25.

The driver and I both stifled our sighs and steeled ourselves for the encounter that was to come.

I opened with the declaration: “Listen, bro, you have two choices: you either let it go or you give me change for Dh35, because I don’t have the coins.”

The driver mused about it for a few seconds, before finally shaking his head. “No, this happens too much times, sir,” he said. “I do this maybe seven times a day and then at the end of month I don’t reach my target.”

Thankfully, the standoff over 25 fils ended amicably, but not before the driver went to the nearby convenience store to get the change required for my Dh35 – the price I had to pay was to wait patiently.

Such interactions, whether it be a restaurant or cab have become commonplace since the introduction of VAT in January.

Before the extra 5 per cent was imposed, prices in general were more often rounded off handsomely – no arguments to be had. But the tax has meant we’ve had to rethink our daily customer-service relations with nearly each exchange a zero-sum game of who coughs up change first. It also exposed the lack of change we often carry around and how that affects the way we deal with services not affected by VAT, such as taxis.

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The story behind a signature: One UAE resident’s tale is a sign of the times

Spring in the UAE: A time filled with regret and guilt

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I have written about this before, but it has continued to be a change-juggling minefield. Some residents have even taken pre-emptive steps to guard themselves against daily skirmishes, such as the one I had with my cabbie.

One of my colleagues enlightened me recently when she told me that each trip she makes to the bank is incomplete without a request for a healthy number of coins – coins that span all denominations.

My favourite laundry in Khalidiyah has taken a hawkish stand, adding a sign that requests the correct change. It has made it common practice that staff collect the exact amount – there are no card payment options, and with neck ties costing Dh5.25 to be dry-cleaned, I can understand their plight.

Some cab drivers I have come across have started carrying coins in a small snack box (that constant rattling can fray a passenger’s nerves), or, in one instance, in something that appeared to be a black sock.

Inconvenience aside, the positives of the VAT implementation are that, aside from many businesses being forced to become more financially literate, the new system has presented some useful lessons for UAE households. My friend Abdullah, who works for a major accounting firm in the UAE, has introduced the concept of the money jar at home.

“It’s more a soup bowl actually,” says the British-Pakistani father-of-three. “I give the kids [all teenagers] a certain allowance and I deduct payments, or fines, for bad grades and failing to do house chores. The coins have been handy, actually.”

So what of my frustrations? Tired of the daily scorn of cab drivers and Baqalas, I opted to make a trip to the mall to purchase a new wallet that has a coin pouch. But, while at one of the small stalls in the courtyard of Al Wahda Mall, I saw a row of small plastic cylinders for sale.

“Coin holders,” the lady said. “They are very popular now.” Bewitched by the sheer ingeniousness of it, I handed the lady a dirham for one. The shop assistant then exhibited the morose smile I have long been accustomed to. “It’s 65 fils, sir, you got any change?”