Dubai World debt woes bad for hotel business

LOS ANGELES — Dubai World borrowed billions of dollars to acquire some of the most high-profile commercial developments in the United States in recent years, and it could be forced to sell them at a loss if the Persian Gulf conglomerate can’t restructure its debts.

An Emarati man ponders the market behind a computer screen at the Dubai Financial Market in Dubai

LOS ANGELES — Dubai World borrowed billions of dollars to acquire some of the most high-profile commercial developments in the United States in recent years, and it could be forced to sell them at a loss if the Persian Gulf conglomerate can’t restructure its debts.

Dubai World said last week it would seek a six-month delay in paying creditors on nearly US$60 billion it owes. The desert emirate racked up the debt during its own real estate bubble that popped with the global recession.

Among Dubai World’s U.S. assets are several luxury hotels — a sector that has been one of the hardest hit by the fallout from rising unemployment and plunging real estate values this year.

One of Dubai World’s biggest units, Istithmar World, spearheaded the holding company’s acquisition of the Mandarin Oriental, New York, for about $380 million in 2007, and a 50 per cent stake in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach for about $375 million last year.

Dubai World also bought the CityCentre Casino&Resort in Las Vegas for about $5.4 billion. The development, a joint venture with MGM Mirage, is slated to open doors on Tuesday and officials have said Dubai World’s debt woes will not derail plans to finish the project.

Emails to Dubai World representatives seeking comment on other properties were not immediately returned Monday.

The U.S. commercial real estate market is in the midst of the most severe downturn in decades, and that’s led to a surge in loan defaults. In many cases lenders have opted to give borrowers more time rather than face taking over properties in a declining market.

But should Dubai World be put in the position where it has to sell some of its U.S. assets — many of them bought at the top of the market — it may struggle to find buyers and likely face steep losses on its investments.

U.S. hotels have generally lost almost half their value since the peak in 2007, according to Fitch Ratings. Hotel loan delinquencies, meanwhile, have surged to nearly seven per cent as of October, according to the ratings agency’s loan delinquency index.

That represents some $3.4 billion in troubled loans out of roughly $51 billion in hotel debt.

Added to constrained lending and a wobbly economy, it all makes for a worst-case scenario for distressed sales.

“Any large borrower who has to sell assets in this environment, you would expect higher losses,” said Mary MacNeill, an analyst with Fitch Ratings. “It’s very difficult right now, people aren’t necessarily lending on hotel properties. It’s a riskier asset type. It will be much more difficult for anybody to get financing.”

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