Dubai’s financial crisis : Q&A Guide
Q. Where did Dubai go wrong? I thought it was in the “oil-rich Gulf”?
A. Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, seven city-states which have separate ruling families, separate budgets, but security, immigration and foreign policies in common. Abu Dhabi has nearly all the UAE’s oil. To keep up, Dubai from the 1950s on diversified its economy into ports, trade, services and finance, largely successfully. But its liquidity-fuelled real estate and tourism binge in the last decade may have been one step too far.
Q. The big market crash after Lehman Brothers folded was more than a year ago. Why has Dubai only just been hit?
A. The property crash hit Dubai at the time – house prices fell 50 pc in six months. Nakheel was known to be in trouble. But investors assumed that as a state-owned company it would not default on its debt. The government refused to issue detailed statements of how it was to handle Dubai World’s debt problems, and rounded on those who said that the crash had undermined Dubai’s development model.
This encouraged a belief that a rescue package was already in place, probably funded by Abu Dhabi. The statement on Wednesday that the government was asking for a six-month standstill on repayments implied the rescue was in doubt.
Q. Why hasn’t Abu Dhabi come to Dubai’s aid? It has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.
A. Abu Dhabi has, via the federal central bank, bought one $10bn bond issued by the Dubai government earlier this year, and, via its own banks, bought another $5bn bond this week. But the latter came with a rider that it was not to be used for the Dubai World bail-out. This raises two questions: what are the other debts for which it is to be used? And how is the Dubai World debt to be met, even after the six-month delay, if Abu Dhabi will not fund the rescue package?
Q. What about other Dubai companies? How are they doing?
A. Dubai World owns DP World, the successful ports operator which bought P&O. Other arms of the Dubai government, and the ruling family’s directly owned holding companies, also own successful companies such as Emirates Airlines and Jumeirah Hotels, as well as stakes in buildings and businesses around the world, including the London Stock Exchange. But the emirate’s lack of transparency and relatively untested financial legal system means that no-one knows if these can be demanded as collateral against Dubai World and other government debts.
Q. Nevertheless, exposure of western banks to the debt seems quite small compared to the trillions of dollars to which we have become accustomed. Why the panic?
A. At the most basic level, fears that exposed banks will have to write down losses, and that both Dubaiand Abu Dhabi may have to sell worldwide assets, has hit prices everywhere. At an “animal spirits” level, the disclosure of significant unforeseen problems in Dubai has refocused attention on where else might have hidden “black holes”. The health of sovereign debt worldwide, already seen as the major financial issue for the next decade, is also being reexamined.
Q. Can Dubai survive?
A. Dubai is still seen as the premier place to do business in the Middle East and beyond. It is a preferred base for not just Arab but Pakistani, Iranian and even Indian businesses, due to the wider region’s political uncertainty. Its reputation for liberal attitudes helps. But events this week have damaged its reputation for economic competence, which the emirate’s rulers will now have to work hard to restore.