Jonathan Castle, 59 was born in London but raised in Thurso, near Caithness in the far North of Scotland. He made the move to Dubai (like 240,000 other Brits) in 2002 lured by high wages and glamorous living.
Until 2010 Jonathan was a successful copywriter in an upscale UAE advertising agency. Like a lot of expats in Dubai, Jonathan received constant phone calls from banks offering him loans. He allowed himself to be caught up in the 'Dubai lifestyle' and accepted some credit cards from Emirates NBD Bank; too many as it turned out. Jonathan fell behind with payments, and then the unpleasant side of the Dubai loan business began to invade his life.
Jonathan cut back on his lifestyle; rarely eating out, he sold his car and moved to a cheaper part of the city. It was not enough for him to meet his payments and in Dubai, unlike in most countries, debt is not a civil matter, it is a criminal offence punishable by substantial jail time.
UAE banks are notorious for their unwillingness to negotiate. Why should they when they can threaten debtors with years in a hellish desert jail? As Abdulfattah Sharaf (HSBC country head) openly says, “Jailing debtors in the UAE remains an effective way for banks to retrieve bad loans. People immediately get people to come and bail them out, and get the money to us”.
So the nightmare began. Debt collectors began to call him on the phone. Despite Jonathan’s pleas to restructure his loan, they refused, becoming more angry and aggressive: "You filthy defaulter. this my country. Give me my money and go home to your country" Jonathan recalls being told by one collector, “the stress was horrendous. They cursed, insulted me and constantly threatened me with jail, explicitly frightening me with how I would be raped and beaten during my sentence, which would be for years, not months.”
Susan, Jonathan’s wife adds, “they were aggressive and insulting with me too. Shouting down the phone that if I really cared for my husband I would be ‘standing with the prostitutes down at Bur Dubai’ to help him.”
Jonathan kept paying what he could and trying to restructure, but debt collectors in the UAE are generally poorly trained, unprofessional, low-wage young men and women from the nearby subcontinent. They get paid a percentage of the money they recover and will apply any pressure they can to collect. Soon they were calling and emailing all of Jonathan’s friends and colleagues, telling them Jonathan was a criminal and insulting them for associating with him. Before long, rude, loud, aggressive debt collectors were actually going to Jonathan’s workplace and harassing him, his co-workers and even clients. Sometimes they actually became physically violent. Amid these circumstances, although they liked Jonathan, his company had to let him go.
“It’s a catch 22,” Jonathan tells us. “Emirates NBD bank has a police case filed against me for missing credit card payments. But the fact I have a police case against me means I can’t get another visa, so I am not allowed to work, so I have no hope to earn money to meet the payments.” The police case comes with a travel ban, meaning it is forbidden for him to leave the country until the debt is paid. Unable to leave, unable to work and definitely unable to pay, Jonathan now lives on handouts, and sleeps on friends’ sofas, knowing that sooner or later he will be sent to jail. “The sentence for debtors is 3 years,” Jonathan says grimly. “But you don’t get to go home after the 3 years. You get 30 days of freedom to arrange to pay the debt, or you go back inside indefinitely, until somehow the debt is paid.”
Jonathan’s marriage is under strain, his wife had to leave the UAE to return to their family home in the Highlands. His health is suffering too. He is unable to afford a doctor although in need of medication for high blood pressure and other ailments. What is Jonathan’s ambition should he ever escape his nightmare? “While most of my friends are enjoying their retirement, I am 59, and living the life of a penniless student. I Just pray that one day I can escape this city, finally visit my father’s grave and live out my remaining years with my wife” (Jonathan’s father died during the time he has been trapped in Dubai)
Jonathan is subsisting now on friends’ kindness. “Sooner or later I will outstay my generous friends’ goodwill,” he tells us. “I do a week here, and a week there, staying with different people in rotation. But time is running out. My friends are gradually moving from Dubai and when that happens I’ll be on the street like so many others. What new friend would want a 60 year old man to live on their couch?””
Gill G, a soft-spoken homeless Scottish expat has to wash and sleep in mall toilets during the day and walk the city at night because she can’t afford to rent an apartment. She lives on the generosity of restaurants she used to frequent who now save leftovers for her. Gill tells us, “I’m suicidal. I’m 60 and I can’t face going to jail. I’d rather die. The UAE government should do something to help. If it wasn’t for the travel ban I would have packed my suitcases and flown straight back to Glasgow. At least I would have had the chance to pay some of my debt. What hope is there for me now?”
Radha Stirling, CEO of UK based NGO Detained in Dubai released the following statement: “UAE banking laws are in desperate need of modernisation. The fact that the bank knows the debtor cannot pay from inside jail and yet will keep him there indefinitely until a relative bails them out means that the bank is effectively taking the debtor hostage. The fact that a debtor can not get a new job because of the police case is also an obvious legal strategy to force them into jail. Such punitive measures clearly do not facilitate debt recovery. We have found that seeking professional debt negotiation services can often resolve the matter, as long as this is initiated at the earliest possible stage.”
Stirling goes on to say that leading global banks with branches in the UAE all use the same ruthless tactics. “Well known international banks collaborate with local debt collection agencies, knowing that they employ methods that would be illegal in their home countries; knowing that they are participating in a process that will likely result in the imprisonment of clients who themselves come from the very countries where they are headquartered. These banks have a duty to uphold the same standards of fairness and decency in the UAE to which they are bound in the UK and Europe; but unfortunately, this is not what happens, and people like Jonathan Castle suffer for it.”