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Welcome to Debt City

Expats who took out loans to finance extravagances during Dubai's good times now flee or face jail.

The wind blows desert sand with Dubai's iconic landmark and world's tallest hotel, the Burj Al Arab, in the background Feb. 8, 2007. (Steve Crisp/Reuters)

DUBAI, UAE — Default on a loan or bounce a check in Dubai and you could end up in debtors’ prison.

That was the very Dickensian prospect facing Simon Ford, a boyish British entrepreneur whose “alternative gift” business sold rides in hot air balloons and Formula 1 racing cars to the party crowd in this Disneyesque city-state. But the recession has hit Dubai hard and Ford’s business foundered.

When his loans came due last June, he did what thousands of other expats have done. He packed up his family and fled — a few hours ahead of the law.

Ford also left behind an anguished “open letter” to friends and creditors that neatly encapsulates the predicament of many expats in Dubai who took out loans during the flush times and now find themselves out of work and unable to keep up with the payments on their seaside villas and luxury cars.

“I am not running away from debt, I am purely protecting those dearest to me and getting out of a country which, due to the lack of structured bankruptcy laws and a banking system which has zero flexibility on loan repayments, drives people to make horrible decisions,” he wrote in an open letter to local media.

He promised to repay all of his creditors.

Dubai authorities won’t say precisely how many people have been jailed for their debts, but local news accounts put the number at about 1,200 — more than 40 percent of the total prison population.

Even trickier to gauge is how many others took Ford’s route and simply fled. Judging by the number of apparently abandoned BMW’s and Mercedes gathering dust on city streets and the ensuing chatter on expats’ discussion boards, the number is not insignificant.

One recent escapee has written a book about his flight. Herve Jaubert, a former French intelligence agent who used to cruise around Dubai in a red Lamborghini, found the law breathing down his neck after his plans to manufacture “luxury submarines” became submerged in debt.

Jaubert explains that he bolted last year after government interrogators threatened to stick needles up his nose. With 007 panache and a woman’s all-encompassing burqa concealing his frogman gear, Jaubert slipped into the sea, swam out to a police patrol boat and disabled its fuel line so that it could not give chase. He then used a rubber dingy to get safely beyond the UAE’s territorial waters where he was met by a confederate in a sailboat. Eight days later they landed in India.

The book, “Escape from Dubai” comes out next month. But Jaubert’s website has been blocked in Dubai and sale of his book will no doubt be banned here. The Frenchman, now living in Florida, was tried in absentia and sentenced to five years imprisonment for fraud.

A number of U.S. citizens have been imprisoned for bounced checks, but the American Embassy — apparently in keeping with the local custom of casting a veil of silence over disturbing news — declined to provide specific figures.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/middle-east/091008/dubai-debt-city