x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dh540m budget boost for federal services

The Federal Cabinet has added Dh540 million to the federal budget, including an extra Dh105m for health and Dh150m for universities.

Health: Dh105 million
Health: Dh105 million

ABU DHABI // The Federal Cabinet agreed on a host of budgets and initiatives yesterday, adding Dh540million of spending to the federal budget, including an extra Dh105m for health and Dh150m for universities.

A meeting chaired by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, also approved a plan granting early retirement to Emiratis who have completed 30 years' service in federal government jobs.

And the Cabinet raised the capitalisation of the petrol supplier Emarat to Dh9billion in an effort to end the funding crisis that has led to fuel shortages.

It set this year's budget for the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme at Dh1.3bn.

The country's three federal universities immediately welcomed the announcement.

The total budget for Zayed University, UAE University and the Higher Colleges of Technology submitted by the Ministry of Finance had been Dh428m below what they should have been given, according to a funding formula previously agreed by the Cabinet.

The extra Dh150m may still leave the universities Dh278m short,but it was welcomed by Dr Rory Hume, the provost of UAE University. He said: "These funds will allow the federal colleges and universities to honour their commitments to all eligible new and continuing students throughout the UAE. Students and their families can now be confident the high-quality education they have come to expect from the federal institutions will be available."

According to the state news agency WAM, the decision was taken to enable the universities to take in all Emirati students and ensure they have adequate placements.

Without knowing exactly where the extra money would go, the universities remained hesitant to comment on its likely impact.

"Any assistance to ease our budget problem is welcomed and appreciated," said HCT's provost, Dr Mark Drummond.

"HCT is proceeding to serve all incoming students next fall with a quality educational experience and as has been reported, we have been struggling with an inadequate budget projection."

Dr Larry Wilson, provost of Zayed University, said that whatever the detail, it was "good news" and showed the respect given to the country's federal higher education institutions.

"Any supplement will be greatly appreciated," he said. "We can really use that money. We have teaching positions that I'd like to fill. We're very grateful, but there's a lot more to know about it."

Dr Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, called the Dh150m a positive start, adding that "it would be nice if that was followed by further funding, especially in the field of research and development."

At the Ministry of Health, a spokeswoman said it was too early to say how it would spend its extra Dh105m. Ministry officials would need to meet first, she said.

However, experts were quick to voice their opinions about what the priorities should be.

Dr Fatma Al Maskari, an associate professor of community medicine at UAE University, said the emphasis should be on primary health and preventative care.

"We already have a lot of focus on curative services and elaborate hospitals, and this pushes patients to go straight to the hospital and demand to see a specialist, because they have no other option," she said.

Strengthening primary healthcare would save money, she said - as would more preventative screening programmes.

Dr Al Maskari called for a breast cancer screening programme, and more health awareness campaigns to teach patients when they should seek treatment. She also wanted more focus on preventing chronic diseases.

"We spend a lot of money on medical equipment and bringing in visiting doctors and sending patients abroad, but do we have a strong enough infrastructure right here? Do we have the right people to operate the expensive medical equipment? That's the problem."

Dr Mohamed Yousif Baniyas, the head of the newly established UAE Medical Board, said the extra money would hopefully encourage the private sector to provide financial support as well.

"This is a great initiative by the government, but if we can get private hospitals and private investors to also contribute in supporting the health needs of the community, then we are set," he said.

Strategic planning would be needed by the ministry, he said, to decide where the money should go, Dr Baniyas said.

At the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme Abdullah Khadeem, the executive director for housing and engineering, said the Dh1.3bn budget was "almost similar" to last year's total.

The programme offers Emiratis interest-free loans and grants to buy or build a new home, or to maintain or extend an existing one. It also provides completed housing, particularly in the Northern Emirates.

"We hope to achieve the best outcome out of the budget allocated," he said yesterday. "The distribution will depend on the number of applications coming in from each emirate, so it is according to the citizens that apply from each emirate."

Federal housing support has skyrocketed since 2008, with most recipients based in Abu Dhabi and Ras al Khaimah. Nearly 3,000 grants and loans were approved by the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme in 2009, the most recent statistic available.

The payment to Emarat was, according to Thaddeus Malesa, an independent energy analyst, "a direct consequence of their loss-making business model".

"Especially with the problems with Enoc stations, [the Federal Government] are pretty much obliged to continue funding [Emarat] ... until Adnoc builds up its distribution network in force in Sharjah and the Northern Emirates.

"They've already received numerous cash infusions since 2008, and this is merely the last instalment of cash."

"At the heart of it is that Emarat is not a profitable company. They buy all their products abroad and they sell it locally at subsidised prices."