New York, London, Paris … Dubai. In the past decade the once sleepy Gulf port has overtaken the old triumvirate of favoured destinations for high-end consumers to top the list of global tourist spending.
In 2016, the latest year for which complete figures are available, tourists in Dubai spent $28.5 billion, $10 billion ahead of its nearest rival, New York. On average, visitors part with twice as much money per head on shopping, hotels and other outgoings as in other major cities. And, for an extra $100 or so, they can even sign up for full-day shopping tours to help them spend it.
But it is not only consumer spending that is at record highs – so are consumer complaints. The emirate’s consumer protection agency, the CCCP, recently reported it received more than 25,000 complaints in 2017, or around 70 a day. A third of complaints involved the services sector, a fifth related to electronics and 6 per cent to e-commerce.
The Dubai authorities said the number of complaints was a testimony to the robustness of a consumer protection regime that had evolved alongside the emirate’s economic expansion. Complaints filed ranged from hidden charges, inaccurate price lists and poor after-sales service to badly stitched clothes. Only a third of complainants were UAE nationals, with the bulk made up of local expatriates and visitors.
Mohammed Ali Rashid Lootah, CEO of Dubai’s Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection agency, said it had managed to resolve 93 per cent of complaints received in 2017 within four working days.
As a long-standing regional entrepot, Dubai has long been a focus for trade in counterfeit goods. Lootah was present at the ceremonial destruction in March of fake goods, part of a haul of $320 million worth of 26 million counterfeits seized in raids on warehouses in 2017.
The regulators also have their eye on e-commerce, with a planned crackdown on unlicensed online sites that offer counterfeit or overpriced goods.
The expansion of Dubai in terms of real estate, hotel accommodation, shopping outlets and visitor attractions has contributed to a doubling of overall consumer spending in the UAE since 2001. And it is plausible to assume that the growth in strong consumer protection in Dubai goes hand in hand with the success of its commerce.
Of course such developments are not confined to the Gulf. The Mall of Egypt, which opened in eastern Cairo just one year ago, offers not just the usual range of high-end shops and entertainment venues but also has a two-acre indoor ski resort. And across the Gulf Cooperation Council, the importance of enhancing consumer protection while expanding commerce seems to be well understood.
A new law to combat commercial cheating will impose fines and jail terms of up to two years on anyone caught offering tampered or potentially harmful goods.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, where annual consumer complaints have tripled to 38,000 from 2011, parliament has been debating a draft law aimed to shield the public from unfair trade practices, counterfeit advertising and contract scams. The new legislation is designed to overcome what Atef Yaacoub, head of Egypt’s Consumer Protection Agency, acknowledged were flaws in current laws.
Egypt’s minister of supply, Ali Al-Moselhi, said in February: “The foundation of competition and the foundation of consumer protection are important for trade progress and development.”
In Morocco too, authorities in March marked a sixth year of National Consumer Rights Days amid criticism that they needed to do more to protect consumers. Bouazza al-Kharati, head of the country’s Federation of Consumer Rights, complained that the level of consumer protection had dropped despite existing laws because of lack of resources.
As part of efforts across the whole Middle East, the UN Conference on Trade and Development this year backed the launch in Cairo of a regional training centre for consumer protection. A similar centre opened in Beirut last year.
UNCTAD’s Middle East programme, supported by the Swedish government, views competition and consumer protection legislation as crucial to closer regional economic integration, alongside anti-corruption and good governance measures. This is not something that sits only among the lofty ideals of bureaucrats: consumers notice, and as Dubai has demonstrated, they reward good governance with open wallets.