A resurgence of in-bound businesses, growing numbers of start-up companies and fresh visa options are making the Middle East a dynamic and positive international private medical insurance (IPMI) market.
Panel members at the Health & Protection Middle East IPMI roundtable in Dubai explained how the region was bouncing back after the Covid pandemic and where they thought there were too few, and too many, insurers operating.
Now Health International general manager – GCC Mayar Jaroudi began by describing how the United Arab Emirates (UAE) IPMI market had developed over the last few years.
“Pre-Covid it was quite a steady market, but I wouldn’t say it was mature yet so there were a lot of opportunities in the country itself,” he said.
“A lot of companies wanted to venture in and establish themselves, but of course with Covid things then stagnated for some time, as happened worldwide.
“But the UAE was an example for many countries where they were quite successful in controlling the pandemic, keeping companies afloat and then relaxing the rules around setting up companies, hiring new talent and the mobility of people coming into the country.
“So now more and more companies are moving to the UAE,” he added.
This support for how the pandemic was handled in the region was echoed by others on the panel.
Some even noted that having seen how it was managed elsewhere in the world they would rather have been in the UAE than anywhere else.
However, as Cigna Insurance chief distribution officer for Middle East and Africa Leah Cotterill noted, there was still an impact on business levels.
“We absolutely saw during the Covid period, as everyone would expect, group schemes contracting in size through people either being made redundant or choosing to leave,” she said.
“We’ve seen that reverse now with the middle of last year being the pivotal point. We’re not at the boom time growth of in-group numbers just yet, but we’re definitely seeing schemes back on the trajectory that we would expect.”
SAUDI ARABIA ATTRACTION
Cotterill agreed that the influx of new companies to the region was particularly encouraging and many of these were of the start-up variety, rather than being established multinationals.
But it is not limited to Dubai and the UAE in general.
“Especially in Saudi Arabia, we’re seeing a lot of virgin business, and a lot of SME sales as a result of that,” she continued.
“The other dynamic that created the mobility flexibility was all these different visas that have come in. There’s a golden visa and a working visa that allows you to work here from other locations without residency.
“That’s actually brought complexity as well but it’s opportunity and we’ve seen a lot of people coming in, setting up companies and making the most of those visa opportunities,” she added.
That growth in companies and people entering the region was repeated by other panel members and they agreed Saudi Arabia was becoming particularly prominent in attracting interest.
This has seen some remarkable changes to client levels and there is an expectation this could continue rising, as AES International director of health and protection Damien Walsh highlighted.
“People are looking at not only here, but the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and particularly Saudi Arabia,” Walsh said.
“Some of our books were 6%, 7% or 8% in Saudi Arabia, but we’re now seeing 50%, 60% or even 70%. So it’s all moving there and that’s where the next move in the region is going to be,” he added.
WORDS OF CAUTION
While sentiments were generally positive around the table, there were also some words of caution and areas highlighted that needed further work to maintain the strong growth.
This was particularly around identifying those industries that were potentially in need of support to continue their growth and modernisation.
“Being a UAE national I think there are some challenges,” said Health Beyond Borders CEO and founder Laila Al Jassmi.
“For example, the healthcare industry has changed. There is a lot of technology and digital health, so the challenge is now what future job opportunities will be available due to that?
“There has to be a lot done with the new workforce that will be coming in terms of education, so we need to look into this.”
But there have been encouraging signs as well.
Al Jassmi had also noticed with her clients that the pandemic had helped to ease a lot of regulation and licensing.
“There has been a lot of innovative technology that industrial experts and young entrepreneurs came in with and the authority has had more of an open ear to listen to these kind of new ventures and help them to realise their goals,” she added.
Another challenge being replicated in the region, as it is across much of the world, is the desire from employers for greater engagement with their staff and to maximise the utilisation of the benefits they provide.
Human resources departments are keen to retain staff as many employees take a long look at their positions and consider their future career plans.
Chief among those is the desire to support employee mental health which took a battering during the pandemic, with one of the more notable trends being a greater openness to allowing those conversations in businesses in the region.
And this is something advice firms and insurers are experiencing too, as they aim to keep and recruit the best staff they can find.
This led on to upheaval in the industry itself with high profile moves by insurers particularly of interest.
The panel noted that where large, high quality international insurers were concerned there was a desire for more entrants into the region to ensure a competitive market.
But with around 50 registered insurance companies in the UAE for 10 million people they added that there appears to be too many smaller regional or local players not offering quality products.
“We want quality insurance providers, but we don’t want contraction in the international space please, we’re running out of options,” said Lifecare International group commercial director for MEA Amber Musson-Thorp.
This was echoed by Nageen Sattar, director of regional client services at Pacific Prime, who added: “I’m quite surprised that we’re still waiting for the local insurance market to evolve and learn from the international insurers, and to be first to pick up the talent from those insurers leaving the market.
“The thing is really to try to standardise and give us the options because we need those options, we need sustainable longevity with clients, we want to build that relationship, build a history with a particular provider and also the third-party administrative agreements, those are very key.
“So although we’re talking about insurers here, for me the core is the access to healthcare and what happens in that journey and that member experience,” she concluded.