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.