Saving the day – Abu Dhabi rescues Dubai after all

Published on The Economist, Dec 14th 2009.

DUBAI, one of seven members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is now in the middle of its international film festival, which includes “City of Life”, a film set in Dubai and directed by a local. But the most gripping cliff-hanger is playing out in Dubai’s debt markets. On Monday December 14th Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest member of the UAE, arrived on the scene at the last moment to rescue its neighbour from the brink of default. 

It provided $10 billion to Dubai’s government, more than enough to repay the $4.1 billion due on Monday to holders of a sukuk, or Islamic bond, issued by Nakheel, a prominent developer. Nakheel belongs to Dubai World, a holding company owned by the Dubai government, which less than three weeks ago requested a standstill on repayments of $26 billion of debt, perplexing investors and panicking global markets.

Just as every film-goer knows that the damsel in distress will be saved in the end, so Dubai’s creditors had long assumed that the emirate would be saved by its oil-rich neighbour. But the standstill announced on November 25th departed from this script, creating genuine suspense …

… If those negotiations falter, Dubai World’s fate will be governed by a brand new “reorganisation law”, unveiled on Monday. The UAE already has a bankruptcy law, but almost no one uses it. Any creditor foolhardy enough to test the regime can expect to recover just ten cents on the dollar, the World Bank calculates.

The new decree instead appoints three judges from the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), a 110-acre “free zone” with its owns laws, written in English and based on common-law principles. The judges include one who formerly sat in the High Court of England and Wales and a Singaporean who previously served on his country’s Supreme Court. They will apply DIFC law, with some tweaks, including a provision to allow for an automatic stay on creditors’ claims.

Their expertise will not be needed if Dubai World’s creditors now come to terms. The chances are good that they will. The shock they have suffered over the past three weeks may have softened them up. And the underlying case for a restructuring of Dubai’s debts has some merit, even if the government has so far handled it abysmally. Dubai, one might say, has had one life. Now it must make a success of its second. (full text).

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