Steven C is in his late 50s. Born in London but raised in the far North of Scotland, he made the move to Dubai in 2002 lured by high, tax- free wages and glamorous living. Until 2010 he was a successful copywriter in an upscale UAE advertising agency. Like a lot of expats in Dubai, Steven 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. Steven fell behind with payments, and then the unpleasant side of the loan business began to invade his life.
Steven cut back on his lifestyle; rarely eating out, 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 that can mean 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 Steven’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 you country" Steven 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.”
Jane, Steven’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.”
Steven 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 Steven’s friends and colleagues, telling them Steven was a criminal and insulting them for associating with him. Before long, rude, loud, aggressive debt collectors were actually going to Steven’s workplace and harassing him, his co-workers and even clients. Sometimes they even became physically violent. His company, although they liked Steven, had to let him go.
“It’s a catch 22,” Steven tells us. “The 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, Steven 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,” Steven 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.”
Steven’s marriage is under strain, his wife having 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 Steven’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” (Steven’s father died during the time he has been trapped in Dubai)
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. We call on the UAE government to show clemency to those stuck in the country because of debt, and to overhaul the banking industry.”
Stirling goes on to say that leading global banks with branches in the UAE all use the same ruthless tactics.