What Happened To The Arab World's Financial Conservatism?

arab worlds financialDebt sucks no matter where in the world you live and work. Yet, in the United States, owing the bank money whether through a credit card, personal loan or overdraft is seen very much as a normal part of daily life.

However, perception usually changes for the worse when difficulty is experienced in meeting repayments. Under such circumstances, personal debt can then become a debilitating burden capable of wrecking peace of mind or even worse.

It's a bit different in the Middle East, for example, where credit cards,  current accounts, personal loans and all the paraphernalia of modern-day finance are viewed rather more suspiciously.

Countries like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the majority of both populations are Muslim, have stoically resisted the advances of the banking sector for generations.

Much of that resistance can be put down to societal differences between the Arab world and the West.

But, even in conservatively-minded Arab society, the emergence of a more virile and adept banking sector has made huge inroads into cultural and religious sensibilities. Where once hard cash dominated all but a tiny fraction of day-to-day transactions, the credit pendulum is now gathering ever-greater momentum with each passing year.

At some point in the future it may prove unstoppable.

So what happened to the Arab world's famed financial conservatism? For one, many Arab countries started looking outwards instead of inwards, as they'd done for centuries, courting foreign tourists and workers and chasing the fabled US dollar, the British pound and just about any other currency. And they've been remarkably good at doing so.

But with the change in outlook and the success which followed it has come the growing demand from the visitors themselves for better facilities, more sophisticated experiences and ever greater value for money.

Certainly, Middle East governments in cahoots with foreign investors were more than happy to splash the cash given the returns on investments involved. The local people also benefited through jobs and income opportunities they ordinarily wouldn't have had. But tourism also brought growing exposure to Western values and ideas and quickened the pace of change.

If change was all but inevitable as a consequence, the banks in particular were quick to capitalise on the burgeoning market, providing tourists and locals, and entrepreneurs and investors with the financial infrastructure and banking services they now demanded. Networks of ATMs grew along with the number of bank branches.

Both domestic and multinational banks such as HSBC and Barclays consolidated their grip on the region.

But it's not been a smooth advance by any means. The glaring disparity between the relatively urban rich and the rural poor is still marked today in terms of access to banking facilities.

There are few ATMs or bank branches to be seen in Upper Egypt, for example, where poverty is rife and many living off of the land survive on meagre returns.

Even in the UAE, where banking is relatively more sophisticated, the increased use of credit cards and loans has brought with it growing problems of indebtedness. In recent years, many expatriates have even skipped the country owing thousands of dollars on their credit cards. Yes, debt sucks, no matter where you live.


    • DC @ Young Adult Money

      DC @ Young Adult Money 03/11/2013 5:41 a.m. #

      I suppose it was inevitable that the spread of credit cards and modern banking would reach the Arab world. The more interconnected the world becomes, the more likely we are going to see changes (such as advancement in banking) happen at the same time, across all continents and cultures. I found this to be unfortunate -> "In recent years, many expatriates have even skipped the country owing thousands of dollars on their credit cards."

    • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank

      Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank 03/11/2013 6:15 a.m. #

      I had never really thought about different cultures and debt, but it certainly looks like debt will get you no matter where you are from.

    • krantcents

      krantcents 03/11/2013 8:51 a.m. #

      Although I have traveled a lot, I never thought about places in the world where there may be no ATMs or banks. Very enlightening!

    • Pauline

      Pauline 03/11/2013 11:18 a.m. #

      I read it was forbidden to charge interest, but not an inflated price, so instead of having a $100,000 mortgage at 5%, you would sell the house for $250,000, interest-free over 20 years. It is all about how you put it. But I think it would help people consider the impact of debt if the credit cards applied that same 20% interest markup from day 1.

    • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse

      Shannon @ The Heavy Purse 03/11/2013 11:46 a.m. #

      I guess wherever people have access to credit then debt will follow, which is sad. It's so commonplace here that I forget in other places in the world credit cards, ATMs, even banks are more a rarity than the norm.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

      Laurie @thefrugalfarmer 03/11/2013 1:07 p.m. #

      Wow, Sicorra, interesting post! I know too from friends that used to live in UAE that their crime numbers are low. I wonder if that will change with the increase in debt? Thanks for sharing some eye-opening info!

    • Corina Ramos

      Corina Ramos 03/13/2013 8:34 p.m. #

      Very interesting post Sicorra.

      I never thought debt in other countries. I also read Laurie's comment and she made a great point. I'm sure there will be a spike in the crime rate as more folks go into debt.

      Enjoyed the post, definitely learned something here, especially the ATM situation. Things are tough all over it seems :)

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