Adding Fuel To UAE’s Rising Costs? – An Expat View

[This article first appeared in Arabian Gazette on August 1 2015]

As new fuel prices in the UAE take effect from today, the expat view on rising costs resurfaces with a fresh context

UAE Fuel price rise adds to cost of living

This post first appeared as my article for Arabian Gazette. Click here for the original version

The United Arab Emirates recently lifted fuel subsidies, thereby deregulating its price and pegging them to the global level. Owing to the country’s cautious approach towards limited resources and its federal budget, the revision in policy has won the backing of credit rating agencies for the environment and economy alike. The revision in fuel prices will take effect from today at pumps across the UAE.

RELATED: Finally, UAE to end fuel subsidies

The low and controlled UAE fuel price had made us expats, especially Non-Resident Indians, the centre of jokes such as “you own an oil well in the backyard, don’t you?” Compared to my fellow countrymen who switch the ignition off at traffic lights and take to the streets at marginal increase in fuel price, we lead a cushioned life insulated from the vagaries of a bustling economy and a ‘full tank with fuller purse’. Or did we?

As an Indian growing up in the UAE with stories of struggle and dreams – some fulfilled and others falling short – this discourse is for the modestly salaried expat – a term I often use to depict a large, if not the largest portion of the 80% non-citizen population of the country fondly called home.

RELATED: UAE Fuel Subsidy Reform gets a thumbs up from Moody’s

Offsetting low fuel price

To argue that expats have reaped riches through controlled petrol prices is an extremely simplified one. In a YouGov survey conducted for The National newspaper in early 2015, around half of expats considered leaving the UAE due to high living costs.

According to the research –

When asked if they would consider moving away from the UAE because of the cost of living, 17 per cent said definitely yes while a further 33 percent said probably yes. Only 21 percent said no, while the rest were unsure.

According to the research manager  –

The majority of expatriates consider money and saving for the future as an important factor in moving to UAE. But the rising costs of living are increasingly holding them back from safeguarding the financial security they have been looking for, which makes moving out of the UAE a serious alternative.

Relief from paying extra for the fuel never obviated the stress caused by exorbitant amounts paid for house rent, utility bills and school fees, and the better part of a modestly salaried expat’s life is a testament to this.

Eking out a living vs living a life

“The cost of living in the area is increasing drastically which isn’t helpful at all.  Life’s becoming quite tough in the UAE generally … people are just surviving these days”

This was the response of a British expat to Gulf News on fuel deregulation. In the life of expats, some of the grave and at times humorous family ‘strategies’ feature a regular stream of cost-saving instructions from parents and similar talks from relatives in gatherings. In the metro rides too, conversations between my countrymen often drift into morose discussions of struggling with a low paying job and the ever-rising expenses. Reflecting on our lives in this country that has otherwise been a splendid host makes me question: have we really succeeded in living a life, or are we just eking out an existence? In a bid to prepare for the next bill, have we settled with mediocrity and the mundane instead of striving for a more fulfilling experience?

To their credit, the financial acumen of the expat generation that first set foot in the UAE laid the foundations for the ones to come. The country’s rapid advancement brought with it new opportunities for the expats, who – instead of splurging on short-lived pleasures – shared the fruits with their people here and back home. Their decision to stay on and serve the country without a real stake provided us with a safe environment – something our home-country provides in little supply. Though navigating through the deeper questions of identity and excellence is an individual challenge – and that deserves a commentary of its own – the opportunity cost paid by the community to live here is little if anything at all.

Counting the real cost

The cost of fuel subsidies does not just dent the federal budgets, but also contributes to negative externalities in the economy and the environment. Ms. Pranita Lele, a teacher of Economics and a resident of UAE for 12 years, says that all good economic policies are never populist policies.

Commenting on the new policy –

There will certainly be an effect on the budget but the impact can be controlled wisely.  Subsidies are never a long run solution for any good economy.  Petrol subsidies had to be removed sometime or the other, so this decision is not shocking at all. There will be long-term positive environmental impact and sustainable development is of paramount importance. Scarce resources have to be protected.

Mohit Purswani, a recent Engineering undergraduate whose father started off as a textile worker in Dubai in 1990, is already preparing to factor in budget tweaks in his first ever job. He sees in the new policy two opportunities that should drive the efforts of the government and its subjects –

I take public transport to work and I wouldn’t say it’s adequately prepared for the potential increase in commuters, especially during peak hours and in areas like Al Nahda where roads are clogged severely. Increased use of metro combined with efficient bus routes should play a key role in the post-deregulation times. One may also have fuel economy as one of their checkboxes when buying a car, which wasn’t of much importance in the UAE so far.
With this in mind, a nuanced criticism of this policy will be traversing a difficult path considering that benefits outweigh costs. A worthy attempt to tackle costs strongly in the UAE lies in a sector that pays immediate dividends and cannot be short-changed or substituted to cut corners.

Education – fuel for the mind

report by Emirates 24|7  shows that UAE is the most expensive for high school.

If we split it country-wise, private schools in the UAE are most expensive, with fees ranging from an average of $6,000 [Dh22,038] for Indian schools to $13,797 [Dh50,676] for British schools.

Previous studies highlight that most parents are unhappy about the fees that schools charge and some maintain that it is becoming difficult for them to keep up with the annual fee hikes.

Tagged with extra tuition fees, cost of books and other co-curricular activities, a child’s time in school alone chips off the elusive savings in large chunks.

Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati social columnist and commentator, wrote this passionate piece on supporting the interests of the country for a better cause at some cost of our own. Just a day later, he authored a strongly worded article rightly questioning the motives of private educators in the country.

Schools owners and business leaders might think it is simply parents complaining and being tight on their expenses, but in reality it is the children who pay the ultimate price. They either have to settle for a sub par education, parents who are constantly stressed with ever growing costs that are yet to see a limit, or even being home schooled and never getting to experience life as a real student, making lifelong friends, supporting their school’s sports team, and being part of a wider community.

Exploitative practises in the education & knowledge sector can unite people of all spending power. Higher fuel costs may keep some cars off the road for the better, but higher tuition fees keep students off quality education – and that’s a grim thought to deal with. As expats grappling with the challenge of rising costs, our objections can be directed towards that which blatantly flouts moral fairness in transactions.

Education remains crucial for a healthy society and does not take a backseat in priority, be it that of the hosts or the home country. Urgency requires that stronger regulation for curtailing school fees be implemented so that it helps parents decide which school & curriculum the child will be a part of. Finally, an easier and economical access to good education is not an exclusive issue, but one that resonates with the local hosts and will garner their support too.

In the light of new developments, it’s possible that more expats may sweat it out in public transport to accommodate the valid needs of the host country. But in an effort to reap business rewards, let schools not forget that the ones who readily paid with sweat for the country may not always afford to pay with money.

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The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

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You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.

Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]

#EtisalatChallenge – A Case Study In Poor Foresight

When six heavyweights of the entertainment & sports arena from South-Asia & Middle East are used for a brand campaign, the message is certainly expected to hit home. But in times when the fundamentals of the message are built on loose bolts, even the most trusted faces on television cannot salvage a campaign that backfires.

Etisalat, UAE’s first Telecom company and also the sole operator till 2006, is holding a 360º communication campaign titled ‘#EtisalatChallenge’. The ambassadors of the campaign, most of whose fandom we maybe a part of, challenge the masses at large “to find an offer that Etisalat cannot match or beat.” Before I shed light on the gaping holes, it’s important to list down the celebrities roped in for the campaign –

  1. Gerard Butler – Scottish actor particularly known for his roles in the films P.S. I Love You and How To Train Your Dragon series
  2. Hrithik Roshan – popular Bollywood actor
  3. Atif Aslam – Pakistani singer with a massive fan-base in Dubai
  4. Ahmed Helmy – Egyptian comedian and drama actor
  5. Ali Mabkhout – Emirati footballer who plays for the Al Jazira Club
  6. Lea Salonga – singer and actress from the Philippines
The fault is not in these stars Image source: alexofarabia.com

The fault is not in these stars
Image source: alexofarabia.com

Now for the catch – Etisalat’s challenge has no more than just ONE contender in the country. The telecom industry in the UAE is a duopoly comprising of Etisalat – owned by the UAE Central Government, and Du – jointly owned by Emirates investment Authority, Mubadala Development Company and Emirates Communication & Technology Company.

Personal experience, complaints from friends & family and a cursory glance of their social media page shows that enviable services are not really Etisalat’s forte’. Inflexible and relative expensive calling rates, and a ban on most third-party VoIP services adds to its unpopularity.

Dial 1 to gauge reactions –

When a people that rank first in the world for trust in its government display a marked cynicism towards its Telcos entity, there’s much insight to be mined from humour.  The ground reality of services notwithstanding, #EtisalatChallenge turned Twitter into a breeding ground for some tongue-in-cheek reactions.

Kindly hold the line for conclusions – 

Few countries are as determined to raise service standards like the UAE. The country’s exponential growth in smart-innovation merits, in the least, the bare-minimums expected from a telecom company. With the country’s active propagation of ‘All Things D’, what matters to the tech-savvy customer is a refreshing offer in services and price, not a marketing gimmick. Spending a fortune for marketing campaigns, reigning in faces that are familiar with the consumers and accepting challenges on its offers are usually tactics of a brand with unfettering loyalty. There would not be anyone better than the brand & marketing managers to understand the pulse of the consumers. They hold the keys to identify the leaking taps. Those leaking taps will tell you that a passionate fan-base for the brand is still some rings away.

The #EtisalatChallenge, far from filling gaps, has united people under a common grievance. Instead of introducing plumbers, Etisalat has welcomed architects with a design that customers cared little about. From a purely campaign perspective, the effort comes about as flashy yet unintelligible, engaging yet awkward. The messengers are pleasing to the eye, the message – the soul of the conversation – defeats the intellect.

But here’s the silver lining. UAE is a country the progress of which is faster than our imagination. It’s fixation with improvement and superior services has positioned it alongside tech-advanced and developed countries in the world. Instead of shying away from future campaigns, brands like Etisalat have an opportunity in social media to directly interact with customers and know what clicks with them. Ultimately, the user is a reflection of the brand’s services. It’s only natural that a telecom entity relies on conversation rather than commercials to improve its ratings.

The conclusion part can also be summed up in the following 140 characters –

For another interesting take on the campaign, check out the blog Alex of Arabia, maintained by Alex Malouf – a renowned commentator and collaborator of news on media in the Middle East.

For an Emirati take on this topic, read the views of Khalid Al Ameri – one of my favourite columnists – in his open letter to Etisalat.