Youth in the UAE spend most of their income on fashion, with Emirati youth spending as much as three times more than their expatriate Arab and Asian counterparts.
A recent market research study revealed that out of every Dh100 spent by the average UAE youth, almost Dh40 goes on clothing and nearly Dh35 on mobile phones.
The "Nielsen Next: Understanding youth in the UAE" study was conducted by the Nielsen Company, a global marketing and advertising research company.
The study included 600 interviews with youths aged 15 to 29 from various socio-economic backgrounds from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. It revealed that Dubai is home to the country's biggest young spenders followed by Abu Dhabi.
The figures show Emirati males lead youth spending with expenditures totalling just over Dh2,000 monthly. Emirati females follow closely with just over Dh1,600 in comparison to Dh1,152 for Arab female expatriates and Dh606 for their Asian counterparts.
The study shows that Emirati youth have a monthly household income of Dh13,500. This is almost double that of their expatriate peers which stands at Dh7,800 for Arabs and Dh6,200 for Asian.
Although the study does not position the country's youth spending habits on a global scale, spending and debt accumulation amongst the UAE's young is becoming a growing concern.
Hamdah Hassan, 25, is a student at Dubai Women's College (DWC) and recently wrote an article in the college's quarterly magazine Desert Dawn addressing increasing debt accumulation amongst Emirati youth.
"The article was inspired by a true story of a 21-year-old colleague of mine who is obsessed with living a luxurious lifestyle," said Hamdah. "We all used to think he came from a rich family until we found out everything he has is taken on bank loans and he's currently in debt for Dh750,000."
A shocking discovery Hamdah made while researching her article was the extent to which Emirati females take loans for luxury purchases.
"When I interviewed a girl at college who told me her friends take loans for plastic surgery I was really shocked because I didn't expect it to happen to that extent," she said. "We hear of people taking loans to buy a car or a house and some even take loans for shopping, but for botox and liposuction…I couldn't believe it."
Hamdah works as a producer at Dubai Racing Channel and studies part-time at DWC. She owes the bank Dh100,000, however it is what she calls a necessary debt. "I am in debt, I have a car loan which I took because I needed it," she said. "I would never take a loan for plastic surgery or for expensive handbags because my future is more important to me than momentary small things I may want now."
She believes the driving force behind the Emirati youth's materialism and disregard for debt accumulation is a lack of parental guidance.
"We are not raised to know how to save money and therefore we don't value it," she said. "As Emiratis we get almost everything free from the government so we don't have to save; which is why my parents have never advised me to save 10 per cent of my salary for example."
In a society dominated by the consumer culture Dr Yasmeen Haddad, Social Psychologist professor at UAE University believes UAE youth need to be encouraged to adopt meaningful life goals.
"The society surrounding these youths accepts such norms as being the more you spend the more prestige and status you acquire," she said. "While in other areas of society high achievement is what elevates a person's status."
Spending is trendy
She added that if a collective society seeks to bring about change it can be achieved due to the flexibility and adaptability of human nature.
"Human behaviour is determined or affected to a great extent by the consequences resulting from such behaviour," she said. "If materialism and excessive spending ceased to be trendy and saving became respectable, people would change their values and attitudes."
It is incumbent on all players in society, including banks, to effect such behavioural changes, says Omar Asghar, Head of wealth management at Mashreq Bank.
"Banks across the world have developed savings programmes in an attempt to make people save after the market crisis, as saving is now the most important banking attitude," he said. "The problem is when saving competes with spending it always loses out due to the human behavioural cognitive aspect."
Mashreq Bank is developing a student banking proposition. "The drive is to make youth understand the value of living a debt-free life and buying things after having worked hard for them."
Buying on credit
Yet, it is not just Emirati youth who disregard their spending habits. Obaida Takriti, a Lebanese national studying at the American University in Dubai, spends Dh2,000 a month on personal expenses — more than the total of what his entire family of seven in Lebanon spends monthly.
He is at university on a scholarship and is financially supported by his uncle as his parents are unable to do so.
"Everything here is more expensive than in Lebanon plus society here is more concerned with living in luxury, so to fit in, you have to pay for it," said Takriti. "I spend around Dh2,000 a month but I know students who spend Dh15,000 not just on food but going out and clothes and stuff."
He added that students who spend excessive amounts of money on personal expenses usually get the money from their families or work in addition to buying on credit.
The Nielsen study shows credit cards are not popular amongst UAE youth but one out of every three youths in Abu Dhabi owns one.
Although splurging on material possessions seems to be the norm for UAE youth, some are realising that living in debt for the sake of appearances is wrong.
"I don't feel pressured to buy designer shoes and handbags although I hang around with people concerned with that stuff," said Hamdah. "At the end of the day I know they don't even own that stuff because it's all been bought on loan."
Monthly personal expenditure of UAE youth
- UAE nationals: Dh2,025
- Arab expatriates: Dh1,592
- Asian expatriates: Dh653
- UAE nationals: Dh1,656
- Arab expatriates: Dh1,152
- Asian expatriates: Dh606
- Source: The Nielsen Company