Tuesday, December 8, 2009

dubai and the press

Currently the financial press is littered with stories about Dubai and its current woes. In the plethora of articles from Hong Kong, to India, and the West, soothsayers are predicting the end of Dubai's glory days. Indeed the botched public relations attempt by Dubai was not only lacking elegance but also spat into the face of the financial community almost demanding a 'standstill'. Yet we live in a sad world where in moments such as these analysis that is objective are drowned in the moment of sensationalism. I am not suggesting that the urgent $26 billion debt restructuring of Dubai's world is a mirage, but I do feel that understanding defaults and quasi government debt is a little more complex then just being hyped up about it all.

But lets see the context. It is not as if Dubai is the only economy that is having to respell the word debt in one hundred different ways. Companies, public sector enterprises and indeed governments all restructure debt, sometimes by issuing new debt at other times by negotiating new terms on existing debt. So why be so surprised that Dubai has asked for some concessions and understanding? Yes admittedly it has done it with a blend of arrogance and naivety but lets move on from that and concentrate on the issues at hand. Are debt holders of Dubai World so sure that enforcement of claims will give them a better reward then cajoling the shareholder of Dubai World, which is the government itself, to put some meaning into the word 'support'.

There will be some pain through this process, and indeed for debt holders they too should know that the document they signed for the debt nowhere uses the name of the Dubai government as a guarantor, so now suggesting that there were implied guarantees is wishful thinking. It is another matter that Dubai World can ill afford to 'default' on the debt as the repercussions for Dubai and the UAE, if not the region, will be enormous. Analogies with meltdowns in the past, and references to the 'last days of Rome' are all sensationalist penmanship, and do nothing to provide merit to the discussion in hand. I have always argued that Dubai needs to create some medium term debt to replace the short term nature of its borrowings and this mismatch needs to be adjusted at the earliest.

As Dubai will tone down its 'Las Vegas on Viagra' sentiment and scale back some of its ambitious plans, there will also need to be understanding within the financial community that strangling the chicken does not always mean every one will get a meal as the wolves that tear the chicken sometimes leave nothing for anyone including themselves. The state of the financial press is such that is not even willing to see the broader picture. Dubai is a part of the UAE, and beyond the Federal Reserves held by the Central Bank, there is a huge cache of funds with Abu Dhabi entities who, as I calculate need only to give 100 days if their revenue to pay off all of Dubai's debt! Yes it is not forthcoming like a spigot turned on, because quite frankly it would be too rewarding for bankers who now claim they didn't know what and who they were lending too. If push came to shove, irrespective of the supposed political intrigue, UAE can and will act as one nation.

Some articles have claimed that there is not hope as the total public sector debt of Dubai is equivalent to its GDP. I conceded this was the case as of today indeed, but then the total debt of the US government is 90.4% of its current GDP! Why is this financial press so paranoid about the failure of the US system? In the 30 years I have been here not one bank has ever gone insolvent, and i mean a bank incorporated within the UAE. Yes I have long argued that some projects planned and being executed within Dubai would never really have a decent return on investment and some projects were about ten years before their time. But we must not forget that ten years back when a six lane highway being built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai many thought it was way over the needs of the time. Even today in this recession we see its not really an empty highway.

My point is simple, yes Dubai may not have held up to its much celebrated PR machine status, but then while these problems may well be real, there is a need for balance. Dubai government must bring to the forefront its own faces, not those of expatriates and hired guns to deal with the issues. It must also sincerely and truthfully explain what went wrong and seek substantive discussions about the way forward. The press for its part should remember that sensational stories have an expiry date which is usually one day. Look ahead, educate, explain and suggest the way forward.

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