Dubai prospects in doubt amid ‘standstill’ on debt

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Just a year after the global downturn derailed Dubai’s explosive growth, the city is now so swamped in debt that it’s asking for a six-month reprieve on paying its bills — causing a drop on world markets Thursday and raising questions about Dubai’s reputation as a magnet for international investment.

Rising among the high towers in Business Bay

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Just a year after the global downturn derailed Dubai’s explosive growth, the city is now so swamped in debt that it’s asking for a six-month reprieve on paying its bills — causing a drop on world markets Thursday and raising questions about Dubai’s reputation as a magnet for international investment.

The fallout came swiftly and was felt globally after Wednesday’s statement that Dubai’s main development engine, Dubai World, would ask creditors for a “standstill” on paying back its US$60 billion debt until at least May.

The company’s real estate arm, Nakheel — whose projects include the palm-shaped island in the Gulf — shoulders the bulk of money due to banks, investment houses and outside development contractors.

In total, the state-backed networks nicknamed Dubai Inc. are $80 billion in the red and the emirate needed a bailout earlier this year from its oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Markets took the news badly — with the Dubai woes and the continued fall of the U.S. dollar giving investors twin worries. Dubai’s move raised concerns about debt across the Gulf Region. Prices to insure debt from Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain all rose by double-digit percentages Thursday, according to data from CMA DataVision.

In Europe, the FTSE 100, Germany’s DAX and the CAC-40 in France opened sharply lower. Earlier in Asia, the Shanghai index sank 119.19 points, or 3.6 per cent, in the biggest one-day fall since Aug. 31. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 1.8 per cent to 22,210.41.

The S&P/TSX composite index dropped 200.1 points to 11,436.8.

Wall Street was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday and most markets in the Middle East were silent because of a major Islamic feast.

“Dubai’s standstill announcement … was vague and it remains difficult to discern whether the call for a standstill will be voluntary,” said a statement from the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based research group that assesses political and financial risk for foreign investors interested in Dubai.

“If it is not, Dubai World will be going into default and that will have more serious negative repercussions for Dubai’s sovereign debt, Dubai World and market confidence in the UAE in general,” the statement added.

Dubai became the Gulf’s biggest credit crunch victim a year ago. But its ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, had continually dismissed concerns over the city-state’s liquidity and claims it overreached during the good times.

When asked about the debt, he confidently assured reporters in a rare meeting two months ago that “we are all right” and “we are not worried,” leaving details of a recovery plan — if such a plan exists — to everyone’s guess.

Then, earlier this month, he told Dubai’s critics to “shut up.”

“He needs to produce a recovery plan that will be respected by those who want to do business with Dubai,” said Simon Henderson, a Gulf and energy specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If he does not do it right, Dubai will be a sad place.”

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