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Homeward bound

Homeward bound

Repatriating funds from the Gulf has been relatively smooth-sailing compared to the rest of the world, according to Marc Aubry of Western Union.

February 1, 2011 6:36 by

The dollar’s fortunes have fluctuated over the past six months, which has meant uncertainty for migrant workers in Gulf states with currencies pegged to it. And nowhere is that uncertainty better reflected than in the world’s exchange houses.

“With the way currencies are fluctuating at the moment, we are seeing people hold back their money until the rate looks more stable,” says Marc Aubry, marketing director for MEA at Western Union, which has more than 455,000 agent locations worldwide, and 1,300 in the Gulf.

“For example, the Indian rupee is really up and down,” he continues. “As a result, people who used to send money home on a monthly basis are now sending it every two or three months.”

But although Aubry accepts the remittance industry has suffered in the downturn, he says the “beauty” of the business is that there will always be a sizeable migrant population in the Gulf.

World Bank estimates suggest the GCC has about 12 million expats, most of them from Asia and Africa. And while the crisis undoubtedly had an impact on the industry, it has by no means been catastrophic.

Nor does the Gulf appear to have been as affected as other regions by the predicted exodus of workers. While global remittances fell by around six per cent in 2009, outflows from the GCC rose almost by eight per cent – a trend the World Bank says will continue in 2010.

Saudi Arabia is comfortably the region’s largest remittance market. And, according to the World Bank, it is the second largest in the world behind the US. In 2009, migrant workers in the kingdom sent home an estimated $26 billion. Saudi is the world’s fourth most popular migrant destination, while Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait take three of the top four slots in a ranking of top immigration countries relative to population.

In the UAE, expats constitute about 80 percent of the population, which means it is still a lucrative market for exchange houses and banks keen to take a slice of the estimated $20 billion a year sent home from the Emirates. It is also a competitive one: There are about 110 exchange companies, with more than 550 branches.

“What we’re very strong at, and what we see as key, is our ability to interact as much as we can on a one-to-one basis with our customers,” Aubry says. “We have a loyalty card that plays a very active role in that because it offers extra convenience, and it’s been doing tremendously well across the Gulf.

“We also have SMS services whereby you are notified when your loved ones accept funds back home. We’ve got discounts on future transactions, and we have gifts and stock promotions that happen on regular occasions.”

The Western Union Gold Card, which earns reward points for every transfer, has also proved a notable success in the Gulf, Aubry says, adding that targeted ethnic marketing has allowed the company to talk to the diaspora “in their own languages, in multiple dialects”.

“We want offers tailored to specific communities – Filipinos, Middle Easterners, Indians and so on,” Aubry says. “That helps us ensure that what we do is targeted, impactful and resonates with the customers.”

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