The Boss: Independent advice you can bank on

Would you rather pay 26 percent interest on a personal loan – or just 4 percent?

It sounds like a no-brainer, writes Ben Flanagan, but finding the banking bargains among the UAE’s myriad financial products wasn’t always easy.

That is what inspired Ambareen Musa to found Souqalmal.com in 2012. The site compares 2,800 products in categories ranging from current accounts to credit cards.

At the time of writing it is showing one personal loan, with United Arab Bank, with a reducing interest rate of 3.99 percent – while another lender is charging a whopping 26 percent.

Ms Musa told Benchmark about how shopping around can save you serious money – and her broader mission to improve financial literacy in the region.

Q&A with Ambareen Musa, founder of Souqalmal.com

Q. Hi Ambareen. Tell us about Souqalmal and where the idea came from.

When I came to Dubai in 2008, I found there were about 50 different banks, but not a single website that could allow me to compare accounts. It was insane; there was no way I had time to sit down and call, say, 20 banks. And so the idea for Souqalmal.com came from there. My first jobs in Dubai were for Bain & Company and MasterCard, which is where I looked at the idea again. I eventually launched Souqalmal.com in 2012, and it is now the number-one financial comparison site in the Middle East. We compare over 2,800 products – from credit cards to loans and bank accounts.

Q. Can it save people money?

Absolutely. We provide all the fine print and information a customer requires to compare their options prior to making a decision. We also provide a whole lot of content and guides into how to choose a product and what you need to watch out for. Generally, the more you understand the options, the better deal you can get. For example, some banks advertise personal loans according to a reducing interest rate, while others advertise the flat rate – which can be vastly different deals in terms of the total amount repayable. On Souqalmal, we compare like-for-like, allowing you to find the best deal. And there is a huge variety of personal loans out there in the UAE. You need to do your homework: the deal you get can be better, for example, if you transfer your salary to the bank.

Read the latest edition of Benchmark Middle East online here

Q. How does the level of competition between financial providers vary in the UAE compared to markets such as the US, UK and India?

The UAE market is extremely fierce with over 50 banks all competing for the same pie. Banks are always striving to find what really gets customers excited and what target customers they should be focused on. The UAE market is an extremely complex one considering the enormous diversity in nationality, culture, language and even what people are used to from their home country. On Souqalmal.com, we put together all the offers in the market; we currently have approximately 200 offers from different banks on credit cards alone. Offers range from balance transfers, to cashback and air miles, and even discounts at cinemas.

Q. What are the biggest personal-finance mistakes being made by new arrivals to the UAE?

I think it comes down to knowledge of the market and local prices and not enough research on their option. For example, knowing which area fits into their income in terms of renting a property, or deciding whether they should buy a first- or second-hand car. We all get caught up in the lifestyle that Dubai can offer, and often tend to spend more on entertainment and making the most of our time here, and forget about why many of us are in Dubai in the first place – to save.

Q. How much control do UAE residents have over their finances compared with those in other countries?

I think this is a very personal question and how much control you have over your finances is more related to your discipline than to which country you live in. However, there are regulations in certain countries, even in the UAE, that are there to protect consumers from taking on too much debt. For example, you cannot have more than 50% of your income being repaid into debts.

Q. Some say UAE residents have relatively low uptake of home insurance, high levels of debt, and poor pension planning. Is that right?

That is absolutely true. The latest survey Souqalmal.com showed that 86% of UAE residents do not have home content insurance following the Torch tower fire in Dubai earlier this year, while 67% of residents still had no intention of taking up contents insurance.

Q. And what are levels of financial literacy like in the UAE?

There is a lot of room to increase awareness. One of the reasons is that the banking system is different to what people are used to outside the UAE. A lot of people come in with preconceived ideas about how the banking industry works – and it’s actually not similar.

Q. Souqalmal currently serves the UAE and Saudi markets – do you plan to launch anywhere else?

Absolutely – in the next few years we want to bring up the level of financial literacy in the MENA region at a different level and ensure that in all these countries consumers have a platform to go to compare and look up all their financial options before signing up.

Q. How does your website make money?

We allow users to apply for financial products through our site. Once we filter and make sure that they are eligible for the product requested, we send their details to the bank they specified, which will call the customer back within 24 hours. And we get a referral fee, on a cost-per-lead model.

Q. What is it like running your own business, rather than working for someone else, and what challenges does that bring?

It is an incredible adventure. However, it is probably one of the loneliest professions. I did everything from my marketing, to my technical support, to my HR – everything – in the beginning. If you have cash-flow issues or you’re having a down day, you’re alone – you don’t have a whole team around you to pick you up. And it is rare to find someone who shares as much passion as you do for your own business. But now we’re in year three, it’s becoming easier to employ others.

Q. Based on your experience, what are your top personal-finance tips for SME owners?

Your cash-flow is your biggest ally. Look at how you are paying your suppliers and how your customers are responding to your invoice deadlines. Be transparent with your management team: If, at some point, you need to scale down expenses to make it to the next funding source, your best allies will be your management team. By having them in the loop, they will be much more involved in supporting you through a tough time.

Q. Tell us about how you handle your own finances. We assume you use Souqalmal yourself! But are you always fully in control of your finances, or do you sometimes let things slide – with a big shopping splurge or maxing out the credit cards, for example?

Absolutely not, but I strive to! I have to say though, being a mother of two very young kids – and my business – I do not have much time to shop nor splurge. I am however guilty of splurging on the kids when we are out. I do however try to think about how to make my money work versus leaving it in a bank account, as it does depreciate with inflation.

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