By Claire Ferris-Lay
An increasingly wealthy female population has led the region's banks to launch a raft of "women only" services.
From electronic gadgets such as pink iPods, mobile phones and Playstations to female friendly taxi services in Dubai, the UAE market is saturated with products specifically at women. And as women's spending power increases and roles at home and in the workplace shift, global companies including banks are all clamouring to target this growing market. With women in the Gulf having an estimated US$40bn of personal wealth at their disposal - 60% of which is cash - it is no wonder banks are now targeting "women only" in a big way.
"Women only services are still at a fairly nascent stage and have yet to take a universal form in the UAE. This segment of banking, however, is becoming increasingly significant and with an increase in the population of women of all nationalities this will only continue to grow. The culture of the region holds women in a special position so also lends itself to these type of services," says Karim Beg, head of products and marketing, ABN Amro on this growing trend.
Johara aims to give a better service to its customers in a totally different atmosphere.The only difference between Johara and our other branches is the fact that they are run by women, for women.
Female friendly banking services vary from bank to bank but generally most offer incentives on spending such as reward schemes. Others focus on the in-branch service available such as dedicated women's only queues and even entire female only staffed branches.
Pakistan's First Women's Bank Limited was one of the first to tap into the female only market when it launched in 1989. The bank only offers credit to companies with a female managing director, if they are more than 50% owned by women or if more than 50% of their staff is female. Despite the launch of this bank in the late 1980s it wasn't until the beginning of the year 2000 that banks in the UAE started to realise the potential of women's spending habits and cash in on the trend.
In 2003 Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB) opened its first women only branch, Johara, in Jumeirah which offered the same services to women as it did men but in a female only environment. Every member of staff in the branch is female from the cashiers and the security guards to the customers.
The response from customers has been so positive that Johara now operates in nine branches across the UAE including Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah with 90 dedicated staff.
Mohammad Ameery, senior vice president, retail and business banking services, DIB, says: "Johara is the only one of its kind in the UAE which aims to give a better service to its customers in a totally different atmosphere."
"The only different between Johara and our other branches is the fact they are run by women, for women. Customers can also make the use of relationship managers for financial advice, a service which is usually only for reserved for VIP customers" he continues. So far the response has been positive, Ameery claims, "We have had excellent results from our independent mystery shoppers and now plan to open another three branches."
Following DIB's successful female friendly launch, a number of similarly women specific products have been launched.
Today women play a very significant role in influencing the economy. They also play a significant role in influencing the purchases of the household so have influence over, not just their expenses.
Al Reem is Emirates Islamic Bank's (EIB) own service for its female customers. Launched this year, the Al Reem bank account offers its account holders a number of complimentary services including breakdown cover, a points reward scheme, precious stone financing and a dedicated women only queuing system once inside any branch. Shamsa Lootah, manager, ladies branch, EIB, says that the account is "a tribute to women".
"In each of our branches we have a dedicated queue for women, however if more privacy is required we can arrange a separate room for our Al Reem customers," she continues.
As well as a breakdown recovery service, the bank can also arrange to pick up its customers cars up once a year and arrange payment for outstanding car fines before arranging the following year's insurance.
Other female friendly banking services available in the UAE include credit cards from ABM Ambro and First Gulf Bank. The Al Ameera credit card from ABM Amro was launched in 2003 and was the first female only credit card in the UAE.
Its incentives include a points rewards scheme which can be redeemed in stores such as IKEA and Mark & Spencer. "The Al Ameera card is an exclusively women's only card - a product that men simply can't have," says Beg of ABN Amro, describing the card.
"The benefits of the Al Ameera credit card range from fashion, beauty, spas, health and fitness to jewellery and accessories.
"Along with these benefits the card also gives an independent spending limit to the customer, rather than the limit being a portion of the husband's credit card limit which is the case for supplementary cards" he says.
First Gulf Bank also offers a similar "ladies card" which it runs in conjunction with its incentive scheme allowing users to redeem points at stores across the UAE. The card was launched in September 2006 in conjunction with Visa. Sanjay Chaturvedi, head of credit cards - retail banking group of First Gulf Bank, says its ladies only card was introduced to assist financially-independent women take charge of their spending and be rewarded in the process.
HSBC also offers a female friendly banking service which is currently under review.
There are a number of reasons why such products are now becoming more widely available. It may seem old-fashioned given the position women maintain at home and in the workplace but the main reason for the introduction of these products is the changing role of women in the UAE. Whether successful businesswomen or housewives, the spending potential of women has grown dramatically resulting in a much larger disposable income than ever before.
The recent successful collaboration between DIB's Johara service and property developer, Nakheel for a joint sales initiative for a new housing development, Al Furjan, clearly demonstrates the potential of female only initiatives.
Women have an increasingly large influence over not just their own finances but others as well as it is widely considered that women also often take care of their family's accounts too as well as their own. Beg of ABM Amro, says, "Women as a customer segment are unique and are driven by specific needs. Today women play a very important role in the economy. They also play a significant role in influencing the purchases of the household so have influence over, not just their expenses but that of their family too."
Outside of the home, the number of businesswomen in the region continues to rise over 10% every year also increasing women's spending potential spending power. "Much more emphasis is being placed on women only banking now. At the beginning of the millennium women would not usually visit branches for anything outside of their regular needs.
"We have seen a lot of women opening up new businesses and asking for finance - between 15-20% of our finance is now dedicated to women. Active women's councils like the one in Sharjah and Dubai are also helping," says Ameery of DIB.
Banks believe that there are distinct differences between the banking habits of women and men. As a general rule, Lootah, EIB, says that women enjoy benefits which they can use instantly such as rewards points systems used in Al Reem. "Men are less likely to use money off vouchers than women are, for example," she says. It is also widely viewed that men and women use different services to each other which may attribute the number of female friendly credit cards now available.
In a recent report, The International Finance Corporation revealed that Arab women living in the UAE, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan or Tunisia are far less likely to obtain credit from financial institutions than their male counterparts. Instead they are more likely to use savings, reinvest profits or borrow from family and friends.
Incentives such as money off vouchers, which women are more likely to spend, are now an increasing factor in persuading women to use credit cards.
Women's role in the family is also a significant factor in the rise of this type of banking. Lootah, EIB, says: "Women are more aware of saving for their children's future so are more likely to save."
In response to this habit, a number of banks offer benefits for its account holder as well as their children. The Al Ameera credit card rewards its customers with reward points for Toys R Us as well as free evenings for an adult plus child at Wild Wadi.
Female only banking is also an increasingly popular trend in other parts of the Middle East. In 2005 Banque Saudi Fransi adopted a high-profile advertising campaign aimed specifically at women for its female only banking services to tap into what is widely considered to be the market with the most potential. Al Masrafy Bank in Bahrain also offers a female only banking service following the granting of its licence last year.
The benefits of female only banking schemes currently available in the UAE may not be revolutionary in what they offer but recognition that women are now as financial independent as their male counterparts is a step in the right direction.