Stranded in the desert: First Dubai Property Scam?

Stranded in the desert: First Dubai Property Scam?

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British investors are chasing a Dubai developer who has £2m of their money, reports John Arlidge. Britons who bought property in a flagship development in Dubai face losing more than £2m in deposits after the developer abandoned the scheme and fled the country. Some 40 Britons have paid deposits on “off-plan flats” in the Light House(pictured), a 15-storey block planned for Dubai Marina, one of the most popular developments in the emirate.

Emad Ayoub, 52, who has dual British and Egyptian nationality, had sold the project on the basis that it would have been ready by last month. So far, however, only the foundations of the 94-flat block have been completed. Ayoub left Dubai last month, and work has stopped.

Buyers contacted by The Sunday Times said they did not know what had happened to the deposit money they had handed over and whether their properties would ever be built.

“We could lose our money, our flat, our future everything,” says Roger Blakeley, 46, from Lancashire, who has put down £90,000. “We chose Dubai because Sheikh Mohammed (the Emirate’s ruler) assured western investors their money would be safe. It’s time for Dubai to show that foreign buyers have rights and are protected when things go wrong.”

The “Light House Affair”, as it is known in Dubai, is the first such scandal to hit a country that has undergone a multi-billion-pound building boom since first allowing foreign investors to buy places there four years ago.

Problems have already emerged. Several projects are behind schedule and some buyers claim that, in the race to build tower blocks and villas, standards of workmanship are slipping. Prices, which have been rising by more than 10% a year, appear to be levelling off, amid concerns about oversupply, especially of flats.

Ayoub began marketing the block two years ago with a sales brochure promising prospective buyers that it would “add comfort, security and joy to your life”. About 90 local and overseas investors bought flats “off-plan” after seeing press advertisements. Nearly half were British.

Buyers visited the sales office in central Dubai, handed over downpayments of an average £50,000 per flat, sat back and waited to see their new homes soaring above the stylish marina. And waited. And waited.

In spring 2005, one year into construction, buyers living in Dubai reported the development was behind schedule. When contacted by investors, Ayoub conceded progress was slow and blamed unforeseen technical issues, but insisted the project was on course for completion last month.

By last summer, the foundations of the block were underway, but progress was still sluggish. Ayoub continued to assure buyers the building would be completed on time. By January, the foundations were largely completed, but it was clear that the block would not be completed by the April deadline. Then, two months ago, all work abruptly stopped.

The first most investors knew about the stoppage was when newspapers in Dubai reported that labourers had refused to turn up for work after not being paid. To add to their concerns, Lieutenant-Colonel Rashid Al Jumeiri, a senior official from Dubai’s Permanent Committee of Labour Affairs, was quoted by a Dubai newspaper as saying that Ayoub had fled after emptying his bank accounts.

When telephone calls to Ayoub’s office in central Dubai went unanswered, buyers contacted the police. Officers could not find the developer, and his office was sealed. A notice on the door of the company’s office announced that it was closed “by order of Dubai Court in favour of the Case No 361’.

Since March, the gates of the Light House site have been padlocked. The only person there during a recent visit was Abdul Wadoob, a security guard sitting in the 40C heat in a wooden hut with no water or air conditioning. Wadoob, who is employed by a private contractor, confirmed that work on the site had stopped two months ago, but didn’t know why.

The disgruntled buyers have hired Shahran Safai, an emirate lawyer, to put pressure on the Dubai authorities to sort out the mess. Buyers are also considering a criminal action against Ayoub for fraud.

Such legal manoeuvrings are the first test of Dubai’s investor-protection regulations and the outcome is being watched closely by people planning to invest in the United Arab Emirates. “There is no precedent,” says Safai. “No investors have found themselves in this situation before.”

If they do not achieve satisfaction in the courts, the group plans to approach Emaar, Dubais biggest property firm, and ask it to take over the site and finish the project. Emaar was master developer of Dubai Marina but had no direct responsibility for the Light House.Emaar last week denied any liability for the halt to the work at the site, but confirmed the company had held “meetings with the legal representatives of third-party investors … in the (Light House) project”.

The Sunday Times last week traced Ayoub to Earls Barton, a village in Northamptonshire. Ayoub admitted he had fled Dubai, but said he had done so because he feared he would be imprisoned after getting into financial difficulties.

The developer denied that he had deliberately emptied his bank accounts, but said he ran out of cash and stopped paying his workers in March after a local bank refused him further credit facilities. The £5m of investors’ money had been swallowed up by the unforeseen construction snags and delays, he said, claiming he had tried to complete work with £1m of his own money.

Ayoub said he sympathised with buyers and was still trying to negotiate with Dubai-based subcontractors to restart building; the remaining £5m money due from investors, together with the proceeds of selling commercial premises in the building, would be enough to finish construction.

He also vigorously denied claims that he had engaged in fraud. “Not one single dirham (the local currency) invested in the Light House has left my accounts in Dubai. It was all invested in the project,” he said.

Blakeley was not impressed. “Now that we know where Mr Ayoub is, we will take steps to pursue him in the British courts,” he said.

Source: Times Online

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