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Sun 1 Jul 2007 02:15 PM

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The loan ranger

Anil Bhoyrul asks whether other banks should follow Barclays' lead in giving customers easier access to loans.

Three weeks ago I was in Dubai's Burjuman Centre. You know what it's like - Friday afternoon, a little bored, having a bit of a cruise around the shops.

Suddenly, a well dressed man, wearing a suit and green tie, began following me.

I thought I had given him the slip by Starbucks, but as I entered Virgin Records, he appeared again. He was smiling.

"I work for Barclays Bank. Do you want a loan?" he said.

"Erm, no," I explained, adding: "I already have one with Mashreqbank."

"Even better," he said.

As we now all know, Barclays Bank is the latest western giant to enter the UAE market. Its retail banking services for current and savings accounts will be launched later this year, but in the mean time, as the sales rep explained to me rather candidly, Barclays doesn't really want your money. It doesn't really want your current and savings accounts. It wants to lend you money and quite a lot of it - through credit cards, loans, mortgages and anything else that springs to mind.

There will be Classic, Gold and Platinum cards, and Barclays has an ambitious plan to become the number one card issuer in the UAE within the next three years by targetting 10,000 new customers a month starting in August..

"We have a large sales force and we have multiple channels to get to the customers. We will be in the malls and [Dubai] Internet City, we will be in cinemas and there will be advertisements on the radio. We have entered the market quite aggressively," says Zeeshan Saleem, Barclays head of cards business in the UAE.

And whereas in the past, banks have insisted on salary transfers before granting loans, Barclays has smartly realised that where the real profit lies is in offering loans - with or without other banking services or salary transfers.

Debt levels have been rapidly rising throughout the UAE and bankers report that the average UAE national owes US$40,800, while expats have debts nearing US$28,000 each.

Personal loans have increased by 13.2% last year to US$7.4 billion and the credit card business is booming.

Given that loans and credit cards, with their high interest rates, are where banks make their real money, it is no surprise that Barclays has decided to offer customers these products with such attractive terms.

So what kind of credit cards are on offer?

There is a Prestige package, for which customers pay an annual fee of AED550, pay 2.19% interest a month and receive a number of benefits including the Barclays Butler Service and discounts at spas and health clubs. Under the Priority package customers pay a yearly fee of AED300, pay 2.39% interest and receive benefits such as travel insurance and free cinema tickets.

Preferred package members pay no annual fee, 2.49% interest and receive fewer benefits.

It all sounds rather the same as Mashreqbank, Citibank, RAK Bank, ABN Amro - but with a twist- offering the customer choice, and in the case of loans - relatively easy access.

I predict Barclays will do incredibly well out of this. And while it would be easy to criticise the bank for homing in on the debt market, banks are in business to make money.

There is less cash to be found in running current accounts, or even savings accounts. More work than is worth it. Margins are far higher on loans.

I suspect that Barclays may have opened up a new trend here.

And even some of the existing regional players may think twice about whether it is really worth offering customers anything more than loans and credit cards.

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