Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Even Dubai is not immune to Real Estate Fraud

Nowhere did the financial crisis expose dreams as fantasy more starkly than Dubai and the Gulf. But perhaps nowhere, not even China, is the new world order that might result more clearly visible.

In the early months of the credit crisis, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Gulf states seemed immune.

Dubai real estate, leaping skywards both physically and financially, enjoyed a final blowout in early 2008. It seemed an exciting alternative to wobbly stock markets for what investors' cash remained in the system.

But after September, it all turned out to have been a Ponzi scheme in disguise. Dubai's trademark developers had been encouraged to sell off-plan sites low to create a feeding frenzy of "flippers" who sold unfinished properties to each other at ever higher prices.

Prices collapsed – down 47.3pc to the second quarter of 2009, more than anywhere else in the world, according to Knight Frank. Some of Dubai's most celebrated companies – Nakheel, who built houses on sand, on the reclaimed Palm and World islands, and Tatweer, which wanted to out-Disney Disneyland in the middle of the desert – teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

State-owned, they contributed to a total debt estimated officially at $80bn, and unofficially as anything up to twice that.

According to one analyst, $300bn of development work was put on hold or cancelled outright. According to another, the city was set to lose up to a fifth of its population as expatriates, who outnumber locals by nine to one, lost their jobs and left.

Dubai was not alone. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, debt exposure suddenly cast a new light on inward-looking, clannish business structures.

Two of the former's biggest conglomerates, family-run Al Gosaibi and Maan al Sanea’s Saad Group, related by both marriage and mutual investments, are involved in a bitter falling out with each other and their creditors.

Newspaper columnists discuss how to deal with beggars in Riyadh. Oil tankers float at sea, full up but with nowhere to go.

As with the rest of the world, the situation, and the price of oil, may have stabilised – for now. The federal United Arab Emirates government is buying Dubai’s bonds and is still aiming for a nationwide growth rate of 3pc for 2009.

That has allowed the region, smarting at criticism of its materialistic excess and its treatment of the people who live there, some breathing space to look at fundamentals.

Dubai may choose to refocus on its regional role. Western migrants may have flown home, but there are still plenty of well-educated Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis for whom a relatively liberal, politically stable Muslim city that is welcoming to foreigners holds many attractions.

Iranians remain, as they always were, the most numerous national group in the city.

And if the world's economy does take another plunge, those who already have cash in the bank are well-placed to expand their influence. Abu Dhabi's ruling family have already helped Barclays and bought Manchester City.

It was China’s role in the rescue of Canary Wharf that caught the headline-writers' attention. But it was Qatar (population 1.4 million) that ended up with by far the biggest stake.

Qatar is now known for its huge supplies of natural gas. But it is Iran’s closest friend in the Arab world, and home to Al-Jazeera television. As with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, its politics may soon start as attracting as much attention as its finances.