By Tom Finn
DOHA, March 3 (Reuters) – Credit cards on the limit, huge bank borrowings and a struggle to repay loans: these are the personal debt problems of some Qataris despite the Gulf state’s reputation for fabulous wealth.
Generous government salaries and free healthcare, funded by vast natural gas reserves in a country with only about 300,000 citizens, do not always translate into healthy bank balances for ordinary Qataris.
Instead, they can come under intense social pressure to live way beyond their means, spending lavishly on everything from the latest smart phones and designer fashions to family weddings. Now their problems are deepening as diving global energy prices mean even the Qatari welfare state is becoming less generous.
Many are borrowing enormous sums from local banks to finance lifestyles they cannot afford, according to a study by Qatar University.
“The idea of Qataris being a small, lucky, happy few – it’s a myth,” said Laurent Lambert, of the university’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute. “Many do not have the income to match the lifestyle and a small percentage are significantly poor by local standards and struggling to make ends meet.”
Widespread personal debt, while familiar throughout the Gulf where loosely-regulated banks and extravagant living are commonplace, does not yet appear to threaten Qatar’s overall financial system.
Of the 75 per cent of Qatari families in debt – most owe more than 250,000 riyals ($68,700), according to a 2014 Qatar National Development Strategy report – only a handful default on their loan payments, an offence punishable by prison.
But recent layoffs of some state employees and petrol price increases – reforms hastened by the sinking energy market – have refocused attention on indebtedness and the problems it could present to social cohesion if citizens start to press their relatives and the government heavily for help.
While Qatar has a total population of 2.4 million, most are foreign workers who have less access to the cheap loans available in a country where a conventional banking system operates alongside – but separately from – Islamic financial institutions.
Likened to a “social curse” by Qatari commentators and a “fever spreading from house to house”, over-indebtedness among the much smaller local population is a raising national concern.
Radio talk shows air interviews with distressed civil servants who complain of becoming mired in debt after borrowing from banks without understanding the costs of repayment.
In Friday sermons, Muslim clerics rail against those who finance holidays to Europe and lavish wedding parties with loans that can devour salaries and lead to depression and divorce.
Part of the problem, some Qataris say, is that the country’s economic boom during the era of high energy prices that lasted until mid-2014 rapidly pushed up standards of living – and expectations of what it means to be both wealthy and successful.
“You cannot have a bad watch on your wrist, a second-hand car, or an old telephone. You need to have the latest models so as not to appear ‘poor’,” said Mohammed al-Mari, a former traffic policeman who works in the charity sector.
“People end up pretending they have money just to keep up. There is this social pressure.”
Al-Mari said that while he has managed to pay off debts and save money during his career years, he knew of a recent university graduate who was struggling. “He buys the latest iPhone because his peers have it but then, at the end of the month, he sells it back to pay his bills,” he said.
Al-Mari recalled how a Qatari woman had recently flown to neighbouring Dubai to purchase a counterfeit designer handbag. “Her friend had bought a bag that she wanted but couldn’t afford,” he said.
As well as a culture of extravagance and conspicuous consumption among some, others decry Qatar’s “welfare syndrome” that has led a generation to believe it can live carelessly and be bailed out by relatives or a paternalistic government.
Part of a strategy by Gulf Arab governments to distribute some of their newly-discovered wealth, loans were extended to citizens in the 1960s and ’70s and again in the early 2000s to help them buy shares in the state’s multi-billion dollar energy enterprises.
Liberal lending by local banks, flush with funds from a fast-growing economy, was later extended to households wanting for instance to build a holiday home or buy a new car. These were handed loans, often several times their annual salary, with virtually no collateral.
“It was a free for all. Anyone could borrow basically as much they wanted,” said Mohamed al-Kubaisa, a Qatari sociologist and newspaper columnist.
After concerns grew about the proliferation of loans and of Qataris unable to pay them back, the central bank imposed in 2011 a cap of two million riyals on consumer credit secured only against borrowers’ salaries, with a maximum repayment period of six years.
Later that year, as Arab Spring protests spread across the region, the government raised state employees’ salaries by 60 percent and by 120 percent for military personnel.
In a similar move neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which like Qatar escaped major Arab Spring unrest, boosted welfare spending sharply in an apparent attempt to secure social peace.
Also in 2011, the United Arab Emirates set up a fund to help cover low-income citizens’ debts. Wielding oil-funded state largesse, Kuwait has occasionally paid off citizens’ personal loans in response to popular pressure.
Qataris are divided over how to tackle the debt problem.
Those who see fault in the reckless spending habits of individuals advocate imposing upper limits on spending for marriage ceremonies and other social occasions, with penalties for those who violate.
Others say the government should more strictly regulate the banks, for which personal loans remain a lucrative business, and help launch more share offerings to encourage citizens to enjoy long-term benefits such as bonus issues and regular dividends.
Authorities have tried to raise awareness about the depth of the problem, launching a campaign titled “Debt is Disgraceful” in 2013 that saw donations collected to help pay money owed by debtors in prison or others threatened with criminal charges.
But some Qataris say that absolving people of their debts sets an unhealthy precedent.
“If you remove a person’s debt, you also absolve them of their personal responsibility to repay the debt,” said Mustafa al-Khamisi, who owns an audit firm. “That is really dangerous, because if you start eroding a person’s responsibility towards society, you start eroding society itself.” (Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp)