An essential business tool, a fashion accessory or a status symbol, whatever its appeal, the remarkable allure of the mobile phone has led to record numbers of people in the Emirates buying them, and they still cannot get enough.
Why the talking just will not stop
ABU DHABI // Stroll through any shopping mall in the capital and the cacophony of ring tones will dispel any doubt that the UAE has the highest number of mobile phone lines per capita in the world.
Pockets bulge with handsets even while callers press phones to their ears. The UAE is awash with mobile phone lines, according to a new confidential report published exclusively today in The National. There are almost twice as many mobile phone lines as there are people in the nation, a testament to UAE consumers' extraordinary passion for the technology. The new figures from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) relate to buying trends for December, the most recent period available, and show there were 191 active mobile telephone lines per 100 people in the UAE.
This is an increase from 186 lines per 100 people in October, according to TRA figures released last month, and puts the UAE at the top of the list, beating even the bustling business hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore. But why the fascination with mobile communications in the UAE? Retailers in Abu Dhabi's thriving mobile phone heartland of Defence Road reported that shoppers regularly spent tens of thousands of dirhams for catchy numbers; one said he knew of a customer who shelled out Dh40,000 (US$10,890) on a number.
This price tag is far lower than the most expensive mobile number ever sold - 6666666 - which was bought from the Qatar Telecom (Qtel) network by an anonymous buyer in May 2006 for Dh10 million, but it demonstrates the phenomenal interest that UAE consumers have in the gadgets. "It is cheap to get a new number and it impresses people if you are seen having many phones," said Iman al Shukair, 37, owner of Paris Phone.
"It is a sign of being rich and it also has a practical side; you can divide up your work life and business life." The UAE's original mobile phone provider, Emirates Telecommunications Corporation, or Etisalat, monopolised the market until its rival du launched operations in Feb 2007. Two years later the companies are locked in a battle for market share with both sides launching discounts and special deals in a bid to woo potential customers.
Du has been more aggressive in its pricing structure, introducing per-second billing and permanent discounts to selected numbers. Etisalat reports that it has a customer base of more than seven million people and aims to secure its position by offering additional services, such as the launch last month of the Apple iPhone, while du hopes consumers will become more price-sensitive amid the economic slowdown, and choose its discount-focused offers.
"It is very easy to get a phone number here and there are good deals if you use different networks for different calls," said Mr al Shukair. "Du is very cheap for international calls and they charge you per second, rather than per minute like Etisalat, but Etisalat has a much more reliable network, so people buy both. "Now people want even more phone numbers so they can give close business contacts one number and more distant contacts a different number.
"This way they can switch off the busy business phone but still get important calls from people who have their private business number." Faisal Mohammed, 22, who works as a retail assistant at the Hello Future mobile store, said, "Everyone has many phones these days. "I have four mobile numbers. I use two Etisalat and two Du numbers. I use one for my girlfriend, one for family, one for work and one I keep in case I need to transfer credit to another phone.
"I use the du phone most of the time because it is cheaper but on Friday afternoons the network is always so busy, you can't get through, so then I use Etisalat. "It is even worse during Eid. Everybody is on the phone at the same time." Amin Ghanem, 21, a salesman at the 007 store in Abu Dhabi, said many UAE parents bought phones for their children. "It's fine when the children are young but as they grow up they want more independence.
"They don't necessarily want their parents to get their telephone bill and see who they are calling. "So they get a new number and a new phone that they pay for, which they can keep secret." Having multiple phones is also seen as a fashion accessory among teenagers, said Hanna Azzam, 37, who owns three branches of Capital Phones in Abu Dhabi. "It's a way of impressing friends, and for boys, it is a way of impressing girls. They want to have many phones so they can look cool.
"They change their handsets every few months so they are always up to date and spend thousands of dirhams on telephone numbers. "I sold a number about a year ago for Dh25,000. He [the buyer] was only about 17. His family paid for it. "As long as people are prepared to pay, I will sell them." An IT supervisor, Hamed al Bloushi, 33, used to carry three phones, until he bought a special Samsung handset which holds two SIM cards.
The father of six, who lives in Abu Dhabi, used one for work, one for family and a du line to take advantage of the cheap call rates. "I was tired of carrying around all the phones but didn't want to have to give up using the different lines," he said. Steven Hartley, a senior analyst with the telecoms consultancy, Ovum, said the record level of phone number ownership in the UAE was a natural consequence of the high GDP per capita of the population and the large business community.
"You have a large proportion of the population with a high income who spend a significant amount of time on the move, so their communications must be mobile. "People use a USB modem to connect their laptop to the internet, have a BlackBerry in one pocket and a mobile phone in the other. That's three telephone lines already. "Add to that people who use one phone for work and another for their personal calls and separate SIMs for international calls and it all quickly adds up.
"There is also a status symbol factor here. People use several mobile phones and several lines as a means to impress business colleagues." He believed the number of mobile phone lines being used in the UAE was likely to increase in future despite the global slowdown. "In the past the industry has tried rolling out phones which use multiple SIM cards but they have failed to really take off. I can imagine that if the trend of people using more than one SIM card continues, phone manufacturers will try again," added Mr Hartley.
But for young men such as Ali Ghana, 20, from Syria, who carries four phones, multi-SIM handsets hold little attraction. "It impresses girls. Carrying around many mobiles is not easy, but that is what pockets were made for." firstname.lastname@example.org