Welcome to Debt City

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.

For U.S. citizens with shaky balance sheets, the notion of fleeing in a rubber dingy might not be appealing. Among the recommended alternatives “engaging a local attorney is usually high on the list,” said an embassy spokesman, Steven Pike.

It’s easy to see how people got in over their heads in this glam desert playground. During the boom years, when the real estate market was flying high, landlords demanded — and received — a year’s rent paid in advance with a series of post-dated checks. Banks, meanwhile, were eager to lend money to just about anyone with a get-rich-quick scheme (luxury submarines?) — with only an undated, blank check as collateral.

But then the bubble burst. Embarrassingly, the government of Dubai, with huge debts of its own, needed a bailout from neighboring Abu Dhabi to stay solvent. The idea of jailing petty debtors strikes most Westerners as cruel. The practice was abolished in Britain by the Debtors Act of 1869; it was abandoned even earlier in the U.S. In most developed countries, bouncing a check or defaulting on a loan is a civil matter, not a criminal offense.

Dubai likes to think of itself as an island of modernity in the Middle East. It attends carefully to its image as a destination for the rich and famous and as safe haven for their investment capital. The negative publicity generated by the likes of Ford and Jaubert has spurred calls for reform, and a new government panel has been set up to overhaul financial laws.

One of the biggest backers of decriminalizing personal debt is Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim, who says that chasing check-bouncers and locking them up is a waste of police resources.

“My boss suggests these matters should be handled with a little more flexibility, especially for businessmen,” said Buti a-Falasi, the police department’s media adviser.

But the practice of treating a bad check as fraud is not entirely unpopular here. Local historians say it goes back to the early days of Dubai’s development as trading port, when merchants and ship owners exchanged signed checks as security warrants. And in a traditional society, throwing deadbeats in jail is still seen as a good way of prodding the extended family to come to the rescue.

Ford, the failed entrepreneur, is back in England trying to start anew. “As you can imagine, it’s been a rather traumatic few months,” he said in response to an email query. “But I'd like to focus on the future so I can make some solid progress on repaying people in Dubai.”