There is an urgent need for higher levels of financial literacy to combat the effects of materialism, the authors of a new UAE study said.
Researchers from Zayed University called for renewed efforts to help break what they said was a cycle of increasingly lavish public displays of wealth, which others then feel obliged to emulate or exceed.
Exuberant spending is placing strain on family relationships and encouraging Emiratis to take on debt to meet the expectations of others, according to the study.
Financial literacy programmes aimed at young people or campaigns designed to educate the wider public were among suggestions put forward by experts, who said materialism should be tackled as a social problem, similar to smoking or speeding.
“As we interviewed people, we saw the younger generation are not always financially smart,” said Salama Al Marzooqi, a former Zayed University student from Abu Dhabi and one of the co-authors of the paper, said. However, she was confident the issue could be addressed.
"They [young people] see it as you only live once and this is your income so you can buy whatever you want", the 27-year-old graduate told The National.
“The problem is not the high income, it is where they are putting their money, so we are trying to educate people.
“From the government’s side, it’s moving in the right direction but from the people’s side, I think we need to work on it.
“I think this [materialism] is a new topic [for Emiratis]. I think they know this topic, this issue, but they aren’t fully aware of the consequences for society.”
In many parts of the Arab world, hospitality and generosity are coupled with extravagant displays of spending.
But while the dangers of an overly-materialistic society are issues which apply across the developed world, researchers found the rapid economic development of the UAE, coupled with certain cultural expectations, meant the problem was potentially more acute in the country.
Despite a rapid pace of change, Emiratis have held onto values such as generosity, hospitality and collectivism, the study found, but these were often “being expressed through materialistic displays” such as expensive gifts or hosting opulent gatherings.
New schemes such as rent-to-own homes and simpler business licences had proven popular with locals, said Noora Al Hameli, another co-author and former student, who now works in the Department of Health.
Some well-known society figures had also set a positive example, for example by having simpler wedding ceremonies, the Emirati former students said.
“It’s okay to spend to your limits,” Ms Al Hameli, 26, said. “If they can afford it, they are helping the economy to grow also.
“The problem is when they go over the limits. There are debts, social pressure, some of the downfalls of materialism.
“I think if we educate people how to invest their money properly, how they can be financially smart, it will benefit them and the country. I think their mindset will shift from spending on luxury goods to investing.
“It’s like smoking – if you just tell someone to stop, they won’t stop. But if you show them how to quit, how good a healthy life is, they are more likely to quit gradually.”
Female wedding receptions have become a particular point of focus in respect of lavish spending, with families facing pressure to spend fortunes on sumptuous ceremonies for hundreds of guests to meet ever-increasing expectations and avoid “shame”, researchers said.
“One of the problems is that even if you can afford it, someone else is looking at you,” said Claire Sherman, 41, an assistant professor at Zayed University’s College of Communication and Media Sciences, who was part of the research team. The study consisted of four focus groups and 25 in-depth interviews with Emiratis.
“In a collectivist society, that can create pressure. The value of presenting your best self, being generous, is really strong.”
The research is part of a major Zayed University project, investigating consumer behaviour in the UAE.
The paper, published in the International Journal of Emerging Markets in September, relies on focus groups and one-on-one interviews with Emiratis.
The researchers cited several examples of materialistic behaviour uncovered in their study, which they said “is already enmeshed within the social fabric of the UAE.”
One interviewee told of her younger sister, in the fifth grade, coming home from primary school and asking for Van Cleef jewellery, a luxury French brand, claiming “everyone in my school wears Van Cleef.”
Another recalled her cousin’s seventh grade daughter asking for a Lady Doir bag. When her mother refused, other members of the family took the child’s side, urging “why not get her a bag”.
A male participant in the research confessed that his household of four had a staff of three maids, a gardener and two drivers which was unnecessarily large. “Thinking of it, we don’t even need that [many] workers,” he said. “But some women are worried about how people might see them.”
A high degree of social media penetration and smartphone use, similar to other advanced nations, was adding “further fuel to the fire”, the research paper said, with Instagram cited as a specific driver of materialism.
Other studies have found a link between social media, mental health, and materialism, with some users feeling under pressure to match unrealistic or unattainable lifestyles depicted by celebrities or influencers.
Less wealthy Emiratis were being placed in a “particularly vulnerable position”, the researchers said, because pressure to conform to increasingly lavish norms could lead to “maladaptive behaviours such as purchasing counterfeit goods or taking on excessive debt.”
Delaying marriages, due to concerns over the cost, was another common consequence for society identified by the researchers.
Strains were sometimes created when dependents asked for expensive goods from parents or other family members, with the situation complicated by a tradition of the male head of the household being “honour bound” to provide for other family members, regardless of whether they had their own incomes.
“Unlike the many developing nation challenges already overcome by the UAE Government, such as developing quality housing, enviable public infrastructure and exceptional healthcare, harnessing materialism may be its first attempt at tackling a truly pervasive, developed nation problem, and one it cannot afford to ignore", the authors wrote.
Damien Arthur, 40, associate professor at Zayed University’s College of Business and the research paper’s lead author, said: “Materialism is a value that is not all bad, there is a good side that a lot of people you talk to express – ‘it makes me feel great, it helps my self-esteem, gives me confidence.’
“At an individual level, it’s not a problem if you can afford it. But at a societal level, if people are doing this, you’re cultivating this culture of materialism because everyone looks around to other people and they want more. It fuels this value of materialism.
“There is a negative side we need to be aware of because it does have long-term consequences, so we should look at ways we can solve it.”