A Consumer’s Perspective
Dr K B Vijayakumar moved to Dubai after a 24 year stint in State Bank of India. In Dubai, he joined the ETA group where he worked for 8 years. He later also worked as a consultant for finance and was a sought after guest faculty by universities and management institutions in UAE. He was the CEO of Deepak Co-operative Bank and later president of Prudent Banking Consultants. He has travelled far and wide to many foreign countries with the sole exception of the US.
Q. Dr Vijay, what is the importance accorded to health in the Middle East?
Ans. Indians who have migrated to the UAE are far more health conscious than they were in their motherland. The reasons are crystal clear. The Government in the UAE promotes quality in every field – more so in matters relating to health. Entry in a Gulf country needs a medical fitness certificate and one has to renew this certificate every 3 years. Those who go to UAE go there primarily for employment and they do not want to take any chances with their health as otherwise they would expose them to the risk of unemployment. There is a need to sustain their job. Another fact is that if they do not take care of their health, then they may not get insurance cover. This fear keeps them on their toes all the time.
Q. Tell us something about your experiences in the ME as regards Govt efforts towards health care.
Ans. The Government intervention in UAE is incredible. The Govt in UAE lays a lot of emphasis on world class health services. The regulations for health care are stringent and you have no choice except follow them. There are stringent regulations even if a doctor wants to set up a private practice or start a clinic. If someone wants to build a hospital, there are separate sets of norms that need to be complied with. The most remarkable aspect is that the entire regime is corruption free. There is no question of diluting the regulations.
Q. Has the Govt taken any special steps to improve health care in the ME ?
Ans. The Govt has promoted health care by having a dedicated city in the heart of the city (near the creek). It is called as health care city. It is a free zone where the expats have 100% ownership. The Govt does not sponsor medical facilities but what it does terribly well is to provide world class infrastructure for setting up medical facilities in this zone. World class hospitals have either set up their branches in the ME or they have their franchisees. Health insurance is quite popular in UAE – cashless facility is available. In ME, the cost of insurance is borne by employers. So, employees have an additional responsibility of maintaining their health. The Govt has ensured that no resident in UAE is without medical insurance. Added to this is the fact that the medical insurance in UAE is not cheap.
Q. Tell us something about healthy eating habits in UAE.
It is widely accepted that most problems in the health of an individual result due to uncontrolled consumption of oil. It is not that one has to eat unhealthy food outside. It is an equal possibility that you could be eating oily, fried food at home. The increasing oil content in different fried items is not good news either. But these have become fads. There are world class restaurants, eateries and hotels in UAE and these give appropriate recommendations to Govt about the right vegetable oil to be used in food items. Based on their suggestions, the Govt recommends to the population that they should consume good quality vegetable oil. However, the Government does not specify any brand. It limits its responsibility to creating greater awareness among the public.
Q. Are most edible oils in UAE imported ? What is the process?
Ans. Yes, all the edible oils are imported. The Government has set up labs and has specified that any cooking medium must pass the lab test. The importer provides 10 samples of the oil to be imported that are subjected to stringent lab tests. The results of these tests can’t be tampered with. Based on positive test results, import of cooking medium is allowed.
Q. Which edible oil is most popular in UAE?
Ans. Most Indian brands like Saffola, Sunola, Gemini, Sundrop, Postman are available in UAE. But the preference among the upper classes is mainly for Olive Oil. All olive oil brands are European as they are imported from Europe. Olive oil costs double that of other oils. Despite this, there is a huge market for olive oil in the ME as consumers are aware about the health benefits of olive oil. We were extensively using olive oil at home, however once we came back to India, we found olive oil way too expensive in India. The difference lies in the earning potential in UAE, compared to which the cost of olive oil may not be much. Purchasing power of Dirhams coupled with zero commercial taxes and absence of import duties has made olive oil extremely popular with the residents of UAE.
Q. What about the other Indian brands? How popular are these brands?
Ans. If one looks at the demographics in the UAE, we have a population of 5.1 million of which 79% are expats. Of the expats, 65% are Indians and less than 5% constitutes the European population. Due to the predominance of Indians, Indian brands are popular in the Gulf among those whose earning potential is low. I am referring to migrant labourers and others who are earning less than 5000 dirhams every month. These low-level workers cannot afford olive oil and so they consume the Indian brands of edible vegetable oils. Most bachelors cook on their own as their focus is on savings, so naturally they prefer Indian brands. Further, they are not adaptable to the taste of olive oil, the health benefits notwithstanding. The fact of the matter is that health consciousness is again a matter of relative purchasing power.
Q. Dr Vijay, can you update us about the advertising claims made by manufacturers of edible oils?
Ans. Madam , you won’t believe it but there are very few advertisements as regards edible vegetable oils in UAE. The situation there is so different compared to that in India. Manufacturers are wary about what they claim considering the stringent regulation. The purchase of vegetable oil is based on personal experience and purchasing power. However, the visibility of the products in the malls/ super markets is much enhanced and during Indian festivals, manufacturers give discounts in the form of additional volume of oil at the same price, say 15% extra.
Q. How high is the awareness levels in the UAE regarding triglycerides in vegetable oils, cholesterol etc? Has the consumption of junk food swelled ?
Ans. The awareness is high. As you mentioned, consumption of junk food has increased thanks to unabated globalization. Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Mc Donalds, Starbucks all of them have set up shop in Dubai, but they are extremely cautious considering the stringent regulations. They maintain proper hygiene and use the right quality and quantity of vegetable oil in their dishes. If any consumer falls sick after eating a pizza, the pizza outlet faces the threat of closure or fine or both. In case of a fatality that results after someone eats in an outlet, there is something called blood money – you have to pay 250000 Dirhams to the family of the deceased as a claim.
Q. How particular are the residents of UAE about their health?
Indians symbolize the chalta hai attitude. So, they take it easy. They do not follow a diet but the good thing is that they have to work hard and so they burn calories and lose weight effortlessly. Europeans in any case are health conscious by nature. The 21% of local population (also called as Emiratis) are gainfully employed without the rigours of hard labour and they are not taxed like others. A recent survey revealed that 40 to 50% of the local population are obese and this is certainly a cause for concern for the government. Incidences of life style diseases like blood pressure and diabetes are on the rise in the UAE. The local population tends to eat lots of junk food and on top of it, they consume more of non vegetarian food. So, the equation becomes highly imbalanced. Couple this with a sedentary lifestyle and this becomes a perfect recipe for disaster. Consumption of soft drinks (including the so-called diet drinks) add to the complexity.
The Government is aware of this problem and is trying its best to address this issue by making periodical health check ups mandatory. Screening happens on a regular basis and expert medical care is guaranteed.