Dubai World’s long road back to creditworthiness

23 September 2010

Dubai World’s debt restructuring deal has made the bankers happier. The challenge for Dubai now is on the ground

Dubai World announced on 9 September that it had reached agreement with nearly all its bank creditors about $24.9bn-worth of debt. What is owed will be restructured into two medium loans: One maturing in five years and the other in eight. The interest is low.

The deal is unappetising, but the big institutions represented on the seven-member coordinating committee decided in May that nothing better was on offer. Reluctant lenders were largely brought on board with the promise of a slightly higher interest rate if the deal was accepted by 8 September.

It’s been described as a victory for Dubai World, which sparked a global mini-crisis in November by announcing a debt service standstill while it negotiated a new deal with the banks. But the fallout from the crisis will affect many Dubai-based companies.

Nevertheless, the Dubai World deal was done and faster than often happens in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, though it has been an uncomfortable 10 months. Restructurings on this scale can sometimes take years to agree.

Minds are now turning to those owed money by Dubai World subsidiaries that are not banks or trade creditors. The amounts they are owed can be huge. There are signs that this part of the Dubai stabilisation process is also going to be difficult and time-consuming.

Dubai World subsidiary Nakheel has offered them 40 per cent in cash with the balance being paid in the form of a five-year sukuk with annual interest of 10 per cent. It said in June that it had reached an agreement on this basis with 75 per cent of its creditors and some have now been paid. But the offer can look unattractive to companies that are themselves facing cash-flow difficulties.

Nakheel has offered those unwilling to accept the offer an alternative to arbitration and costly court action. The Dubai World Tribunal was set up in December 2009 to hear claims and make decisions efficiently. The National newspaper reported on 20 September that a Dubai construction company had filed a claim with the tribunal for $49m in unpaid bills plus interest. This is by far the biggest to date.

These developments are of intense interest to all those owed money and to their legal representatives. But the challenge that is going to become more pressing is not in the courts, but on the ground. While the Dubai World negotiations were unfolding, work on many projects in Dubai stopped. That is why news on 22 September that construction had resumed on Nakheel’s Al-Furjan housing project near Jebel Ali is probably the most encouraging development for the company this year. It shows that the contractor has been paid and that money will continue to flow.

The concern for friends of Dubai is that the lengthy debt negotiations are seriously slowing the completion of unfinished projects in the emirate and might affect the maintenance of the ones that have been opened. You can save cash by suspending operations, but time and nature have to be combated. Buildings have to be looked after.

So the challenge facing Dubai is beginning the change. Most of its creditors now believe they will be paid and are prepared to wait to get their money in full. The Dubai debt story is beginning to die. The new issue is reviving faith in the compelling vision that inspired so many.

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