I often get asked about my thoughts about the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Before I moved here, I probably would have described a land of sand, oil, mosques, wealth, and magic carpets amongst other things.
In all honesty, looking back, that wouldn’t have been a terrible guess, but now that I’ve lived here for a while, I think maybe it was a bit one dimensional!
One can’t be blamed for basing assumptions on what most people would consider to be the native Arabic speaking Emiratis; how they live and what jobs they do. But the Emiratis only make up 13 per cent of the population. The rest? 17 per cent Western expats and 70 per cent low-income migrant workers from countries such as Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Are you shocked that not everyone drives a sports car? Well, it’s true. And there are a few common misconceptions about the UAE and the underprivileged 70 per cent of its population that I can help clear up for you.
- The streets are paved with gold
More golden sand, than actual gold. The UAE is celebrating its 46th National Day in December 2017, so understandably, it’s very much still under construction. Yes, there is a lot of wealth, and the Burj Al Arab is partially plated with gold leaf, but there’s also 70 per cent of the population who earn under AED 5,000 a month (around $1,360) and cannot afford luxuries.
- You can live here comfortably on $1,360 a month
Most of the low-income migrant workers in the UAE are here to send money back to their families, because they can earn more here than in their home countries. Typically, they send around 60-70 per cent of their wages home, meaning that they will only get a remaining 20-30 per cent to live on. So, monthly income suddenly drops from $1,360 to about $400. And given that Dubai is one of the most expensive cities in the world, this isn’t much to survive on, let alone afford a comfortable lifestyle.
- Most people in the UAE have a bank account
This is a common misconception and far from the truth. Most banks in the UAE have a minimum salary requirement of AED 5,000, meaning that the low-income migrant workers can’t have a bank account and get paid via a prepaid card with limited functionality. They use this card to withdraw their salary in cash, excluding them from many in-store card purchases or online benefits such as cheap remittance options.
- It is more developed than emerging economies
Considering that world’s tallest building and the only seven-star hotel in the world are in the UAE, you might expect the most high-tech payments systems too. Pakistan and India are leading the way here though, having launched instant mobile payments years ago. Easypaisa, a money transfer service accessed through a mobile phone, was launched in Pakistan in 2009 and PayTM is India’s version, which was launched in 2010 and has amassed over 230 million users. NOW Money is the first accounts and remittance service for low-income people in the UAE, but most of them have used similar services in their home countries.
- Migrant workers can’t afford smartphones
The first question I get asked when speaking to people about NOW Money: “but can they afford smartphones?”Yes, 98 per cent of low-income migrant workers own a smartphone. It’s their only way of communicating with their families back home, and probably their most prized possession. A perfectly good smartphone is now available at Carrefour for AED 120.
- They can’t read English – can they even use a smartphone?
The standard of literacy in emerging economies ranges between 50 and 60 per cent compared to 99 per cent in many Western countries (UNESCO 2015). Therefore, you could argue that migrant workers won’t be able to read their native language, let alone another one? Wrong! When carrying out market research at the end of 2016 I discovered the majority of users wanted the NOW Money app to be in English, as they’re using it every day. As go-getters who have moved abroad, UAE migrants hold an education advantage on their relatives at home.
- Their families don’t have access to the internet
Some won’t, some will. But, in reference to point four, mobile payments are sophisticated in some of the workers’ native countries, so the chances are beneficiaries will be able to receive money using a mobile device. NOW Money delivers remittance to mobile wallets, bank accounts and local pick-up, so there isn’t actually a need for their families to have access to the internet.
- It’s all about Dubai
Dubai’s population only makes up 2.8 million of the 9.27 million people in the UAE. That means there’s still 6.48 million people living outside the metropolitan hub. Although Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the best-known Emirate states, there’s actually five more: Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaima, and Umm Al Quwain, all of which have low-income migrants working in their hotels, shops, taxis, and building new structures.
So, as you can see, NOW Money’s target audience are vast in quantity and in need of safer, cheaper and more efficient access to payments and money transfer services. The emergence of FinTech and RegTech in recent years has opened up a gateway to enable cost-efficient solutions to be created for this population, who are currently excluded from the current financial system.