Public policymaking and economic development have been hampered for years by a paucity of social and economic data, but the creation of statistical institutions at the federal level and in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is changing things.
When the HSBC regional chief economist Simon Williams arrived in the UAE four years ago, a lack of economic data made his job challenging.
The monthly data on inflation and financial conditions in the banking industry, now released by the Government and relied upon to assess the health of the economy, was absent. "Over the last few years, economists, business analysts and investors have felt blind as we haven't had the information we require," he says. The information vacuum is slowly being filled as authorities boost the output of statistics on a wide range of indicators including population growth, employment and foreign direct investment.
The Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi (SCAD) last week announced it was aiming to produce nearly 1,700 reports by 2014, while the Dubai Statistics Centre (DSC) is aiming to double its statistics output over the next few years. Both centres co-ordinate with the National Statistics Centre, which produces data at a federal level. "Micro-indicators on everything such as labour, energy usage and the number of people visiting the country enables economists to build a more accurate picture of the macroeconomy," says Tudor Allin-Khan, the chief economist at HC Brokerage in Dubai.
The amount of economic statistics available at an emirate level until recently has been limited, with many investors and economists often having to rely on information supplied at a federal level, either from the Central Bank or the Ministry of Economy. The ministry supplies monthly statistics on consumer prices and annual data on trade, investment and GDP. Monthly data on banking indicators and money aggregates and daily figures on the Emirates interbank offered rate (Eibor) are available from the Central Bank.
This move is part of a wider effort to enable government officials and the private sector to make better-informed decisions and to attract investors by bringing the emirate up to standards of international best practice on data availability. At the same time, officials hope a regular publishing of information will show the Emirates is on track for a robust rebound from the global financial crisis.
Abu Dhabi took an important step in boosting data output with the publication of SCAD's strategic plan. The statistics centre was established two years ago as an independent body. The 629 statistical indicators it will track within four years will cover the wider economy, industry, business, demography, agriculture, the environment and employment. SCAD plans to issue more than 700 reports this year alone.
The agency is already helping to shed light on never-before-examined parts of the capital's socio-economic landscape such as levels of unemployment among nationals and standards of living. This bounty of information will be put to good use, say officials. "The Government's ambitious policy agenda and 2030 vision require reliable statistics to support them as policy decisions are made on economic diversification, social development and infrastructure," says Khalid al Hashemi, the director of strategy and development at SCAD.
"Our purpose is not to promote or defend a given policy but rather to enable both the public and private sector to use the data we provide to understand the impact of that policy." SCAD is working with 22 government organisations such as the Offset Programme Bureau, Abu Dhabi Department of Defence, the Health Authority Abu Dhabi and government-related entities such as Mubadala Development to establish information-sharing agreements.
The organisation also aims to earn revenue by being commissioned to conduct surveys. "Some of the entities we are co-operating with have already approached us to request certain studies to be carried out for them," says Mr al Hashemi. "We are now in the process of establishing a cost structure on how to price a survey." One of the challenges SCAD has faced has been setting out a new framework for provision of information in a culture with little background in economic research.
Officials visited Hong Kong and Singapore to gain an understanding of how statistics centres in other emerging markets operate. With few nationals having statistics degrees, part of SCAD's strategy has been to provide sponsorships for students to study the subject at university. More than 70 per cent of the 130 staff at the centre are Emirati, and it plans to increase employee numbers to 300 by 2013.
SCAD will work closely with the Abu Dhabi Economic Research Agency, an economic think tank set up last year to assist policymakers in shaping the growth of the emirate. Researchers at the agency are focusing on a number of key areas of study such as sustainable economic growth, the role of financial markets in the wider economy, energy and the environment and labour markets. It will stage public policy seminars to present the results of its research to policymakers and will commission research projects.
In Dubai, DSC plans to widen its data input with research over the coming months on manufacturing, transportation, employment, trade and financial services. Advances in research and data output are helping the UAE to catch up with other countries. "Data provision in the UAE has been weak, not just by global but regional standards, over recent years," Mr Williams says. "Improvements elsewhere in the region have not happened here, and it's clear that's beginning to change, and for economists, business analysts and the business community, any improvement in the breadth and timeliness of information is to be welcomed."
The timely release of information is still an issue, economists say. Some monthly data, such as the consumer price index from the Ministry of Economy, are sometimes published up to two months after the actual date. Another challenge for the UAE is ensuring that the data it publishes are considered reliable. The DSC said last week that the emirate's population grew 7.3 per cent last year to 1.77 million from 1.65 million in 2008. Many economists had forecast either little growth or a population decline after a wave of job losses during the financial crisis.
Meanwhile, figures from the centre do not support the assumption among many in the building industry that activity in the emirate's construction sector slowed last year. Figures released last week from the centre through Dubai Municipality showed the value of buildings completed in the emirate last year was Dh24.89 billion (US$6.77bn), up more than 44 per cent from 2008. "The UAE publishing more statistics is fantastic but it takes time before people start to trust official figures as accurate," Mr Allin-Khan says.
Dubai was criticised for a lack of transparency after the announcement in November that the government-controlled conglomerate Dubai World was seeking to restructure $26bn of debt. "One of the most obvious lessons to learn from the downturn of the last year or so is the need for greater transparency and disclosure of macro data," Mr Williams says. Ultimately, the job of Mr Williams and other economists to assess the health of the economy will become a great deal easier as disclosure of data improves.