Find out why residents in the UAE are at risk

Find out if residents in the UAE are at riskImage Credit: Supplied

Melissa O'Neill has been living in Dubai for almost four years. Like the overwhelming majority of UAE residents, she had not got round to purchasing home contents insurance — one of the life admin tasks on a long list, she says. But then something happened to bring home the importance: her apartment caught fire.

The Briton is one of the thousands of unfortunate residents of the 676-apartment, 79-floor Dubai Marina Torch building that went up in flames on February 21 — although luckier than many as her apartment is still habitable, unlike 101 others in the building.

''You don't ever think the day will come when your apartment catches fire. You think of it like you think of winning the lottery, but you don't actually put it into your reality.''

O'Neill, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, says they were sound asleep when the fire alarm went off at about 2am.

The Swissgulf Partners recruitment company co-owner is full of praise for the building's management and still marvels at the fact everybody emerged unscathed from the one-time tallest residential building in the world. But the fire alarm had become an all-too regular feature, she says.

''It does go off a lot. When we first moved in it was every day, but now it's about every other week... It got to the point where we joked 'If there is a fire, we're just going to sit here thinking it's a false alarm'.''

And that was exactly what happened, initially. But it seemed to go on for longer than usual.

''We still weren't panicking, but then my [husband] looked out the window and said, 'There's a fire engine and ambulance, that's weird'... and as he looked out, a piece of cladding on fire fell past the window. I won't ever forget him turning to me saying, 'It's us'.''

What followed was a frenzied dash from the 19th floor — about 30 floors below where the fire is thought to have originated.

''What you don't know when you're in a high-rise, obviously, is you have no way of telling how far above it is. For all we knew, the flat above us was on fire.''

O'Neill and her husband ended up out on the street without money, phones, or even shoes — wearing just their pyjamas and jumpers.

Thanks to a coinciding sandstorm, the huge fireballs fanned out as far as the Barasti nightclub about 800 metres away. As she watched, O'Neill says her thoughts had not yet turned to insurance. ''At the time there was pretty much no worry about our stuff or the apartment, it was more a case of 'My God is everyone out? This could get really bad'. Suddenly your belongings don't matter. It's not until afterwards you think, 'If we had lost everything, that's another level'.''

Fortunately the only damage to the apartment, which they have rented almost since O'Neill arrived in Dubai, was caused by some water leakage as a result of the firefighting efforts. She says getting insurance coverage, which she picked up for about Dh700 a year, was the first thing to be sorted once the situation was under control.

So why did it take such a close shave to get around to arranging coverage? ''I wouldn't even know how to answer that. We just hadn't done it... you know that list of things you always say, 'We should do that?' It was one of those. We hadn't made the effort to make the call and it's taken something drastic to bump it up the list. I wish we had done it earlier.''

Zahir Sharif, General Manager at Zurich Insurance Middle East, says that while most insurance companies are seeing a spike in home insurance sales in the wake of the high-profile fire — Axa Gulf reported a 600 per cent increase in inquiries — this vigilance is unlikely to last.

Tough lesson

''Sadly, it often takes events such as the [2012] Tamweel Tower and Torch fires to focus people's minds on the need to protect their possessions against unforeseen circumstances,'' he says.

Zurich, which is currently supporting 16 affected Torch residents with insurance claims, saw a similar initial spike in home insurance sales in the immediate aftermath of the Tamweel Tower fire. ''But one year on from that fire, we undertook a YouGov survey and found that only 6 per cent of UAE residents had home contents insurance,'' says Sharif. ''The Torch tower blaze might not have a lasting, long-term effect on people's attitudes to home insurance.''

The figure drops to a woeful 4 per cent among tenants, with 22 per cent of homeowners taking out policies. In the UK, more than three-quarter of people have home and contents insurance. So what is the cause of the lax attitude here?

Sharif says there is no single reason why the UAE has such low levels of home insurance due to the transient nature of expat life, [so they] either forget to purchase insurance or don't believe they've accumulated enough possessions to require [it], which is often not the case,'' he explains.

''There is also an ingrained belief that you primarily need home contents insurance to protect against theft. In the UAE, thankfully, crime is not a significant concern, but fire and floods are and people need to protect themselves accordingly.

''More broadly, there is a lack of awareness of the benefits of home insurance, but this is slowly changing.''

Figures show that while 22 per cent of Emiratis opt for the policies, only 19.5 per cent of the Westerners, 4.1 per cent of other Arab nationals and 3.8 per cent of Asians tend to go the insurance cover way.

''Take-up is low, but it varies greatly across the country's different groups and is beginning to gather momentum,'' says Sharif.

He also points out a ''potentially very costly'' common misconception that tenants don't need insurance because their landlord's insurance will cover them.

''[A] building's insurance only covers loss or damage to the building and permanent fixtures and fittings — so tenants must take out contents insurance.''

About 5 per cent of the people living in apartments have contents insurance, compared with 12 per cent of those in villas.

A mandatory discussion

Another issue hampering broad insurance coverage is the number of illegal sublets and people renting homes out through websites such as Air BnB. O'Neill says she is aware of several sublet situations in the Torch building, and a large number that are used as holiday rentals.

But Alexis de Beauregard, Chief Officer of Marketing and Retail Product Offering at Axa Insurance Gulf, explains that companies are not able to provide cover outside the scope of local regulations. ''While many companies might not ask for the tenancy contract to provide cover in the first place, it is mentioned in the terms and conditions and at the time of the claim it's completely our right to ask 'Who is the real tenant?''' he says.

While overseas insurers are beginning to tailor insurance policies to fit the growing holiday rental and subletting market, that is not the priority in Dubai, adds de Beauregard.

''I think the priority needs to be on the overall awareness of first getting home insurance before tackling one [specific] area, which I agree is growing, but the volumes compared with the tenants and owners [without cover] are nothing.''

De Beauregard says something that is often forgotten is the duty tenants have to one another. In many European countries insurance is mandatory for this very reason — much like third-party car insurance.

''There is a tenant liability towards the landlord, and an occupier's liability towards others,'' he points out.

Mandatory insurance is a conversation de Beauregard would like to see happen here, especially with many people living in close proximity to one another in high rise buildings.

''[It would] not only protect you inside your home but also outside your home,'' he says. For example, if your accident causes damage to another property.

It is not yet clear what liability the person who caused the Torch fire would have, but as long as what was done was not illegal, excessively negligent and, of course, had insurance cover, that person might have been saved from further heartache.

For de Beauregard it all comes down to the ease and affordability of getting coverage — whether it be with Axa or another company. This is a point he is constantly reminding his Dubai based friends, many of whom are uninsured.

''I tell them, 'Guys, I still don't understand why you're not covered. Do you understand the exposure... at which you put yourself for less than a dirham a day?'

''Insurance allows you to go back to normal life quickly. You transfer risk from yourself to a company that has the financial support to help in cases of loss.''

Find out where the onus lies after a building fire in UAE

Source: Amanda Fisher, Special to Property Weekly


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