United Arab Emirates women play the market

About a dozen veiled women, some with only their eyes visible, stare at a large flat screen flashing stock prices inside a female-only dealing room at the Dubai bourse.

Motivated by a desire to make some quick money, share their husbands’ passion for stocks or simply fill in time, many housewives in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been lured into a bubbling stock market over the past year.

“The problem is that we had a mad rush into stocks at the highest prices,” says Salma al-Mansuri (30), a female financial adviser.

Although the Dubai and Abu Dhabi markets have been rising since the start of the trading week on Saturday, they remain in the midst of a major correction that has hit all bourses in the oil-rich Gulf.

The Dubai Financial Market index is down a massive 35% since the start of the year, while Abu Dhabi’s index has shed 15% over the same period.

The UAE market was the best performing in the Gulf in 2005 with a spectacular 135% gain, followed by the region’s biggest bourse in Saudi Arabia, which jumped 103%, according to data compiled by the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre (GRC).

Awash in liquidity from rising oil prices and fueled by the insatiable hunger of Gulf investors for new initial public offerings, stock markets could only go one way—up.

But the hype and unrealistic stock valuations combined with poor market regulation meant it was only a matter of time before the bubble burst, according to the GRC.

“I do not know what is happening in this market,” laments Nora Mahmud (48), who has seen the value of her four million dirham ($1,1-million) portfolio slashed in half over the past few months.

Nearby, a woman clad in black from head to toe, except for the spectacles that cover her eyes, blames unscrupulous speculators for the plunge and says she is determined to hang on to her investments.

“I lost a lot of money on black Tuesday,” adds Umm Abdulrahman (45), referring to March 14, when the Dubai market plunged 11,7$ in a single day. “I can’t quit now, I must make up my losses, God willing.”

But two other women, clutching designer handbags and dressed in silk abayas, the traditional female black robes, say they have lost faith in the market.

“It is like gambling, and anyway many women just invested to amuse themselves instead of spending all their money on perfume and clothes,” says one who identifies herself only as Shireen.

Mansuri says she still believes the markets offer an attractive long-term opportunity given the UAE’s strong economic fundamentals and wants to educate women on how to make the right investment decisions using internet technologies.

She says playing the stock market is an ideal occupation for many Emirati women who must stay home for religious or family considerations.

Although the UAE prides itself on promoting women, who are able to benefit from higher education and enter the workforce, many still have to contend with a conservative, male-dominated Muslim society that sees a woman’s place at home.

Mansuri recounts how she coached a young female member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, who is not allowed to leave home, to find a new purpose for her life by convincing her father and brother to entrust her with seven million dirhams ($2-million) to invest.

“She could have spent 20 years without having much contact with her brother and father, but now they speak to her every day,” Mansuri says as she studies stock charts on her laptop.

She says she knows of at least 20 women who divorced their husbands because they felt the men were paying more attention to stocks than to their marriage. “I urge women now to get involved in their husbands’ passion.”

Then there is Aisha al-Mheri (45), one of three wives of a wealthy Dubai merchant, who wears the niqab, the black Islamic dress that only shows a woman’s eyes.

She can barely read or write but has been investing her savings and those of her 70-year-old mother, Amna, in the Dubai stock market over the past year.

“I follow my gut feeling when I buy and sell,” Mheri says as she scribbles prices on a small notepad while watching the stock ticker tape on her television screen at home.

She has three brokerage accounts and gives orders over the telephone.

Despite recent losses, she says she has done handsomely in the market, refurbishing her villa in a posh Dubai neighbourhood with the profits.—AFP

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