Trapped in limbo in a land of opportunity

Westerners in debt may be unable to leave Dubai or Qatar, reports Alistair Dawber

Philippe Bogaert makes a living playing the piano in the bars, cafes and restaurants of Doha, the capital of the desert state of Qatar in the Persian Gulf, an ambitious country that is desperately trying to become a major player in international energy and finance markets.

Not a bad lifestyle, you might think, especially considering that expatriates such as M. Bogaert, a 37-year old Belgian, enjoy tax-free living and can almost guarantee 365 days a year of sunshine. But while more than 110,000 Britons have already decided they have had enough of the credit-crunched UK and now live and work in Qatar and its Gulf neighbour, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, M. Bogaert's story ought to give anyone considering the move pause for thought.

Since moving out to Qatar in April last year to work as a senior manager for the Qatari subsidiary of Dialogic, a multinational media company, M. Bogaert has been unable to leave. He claims he is "being held hostage" after the group he worked for, and eventually managed, went into administration facing a claim for $500,000: a sum M. Bogaert says the company cannot afford and for which he is now being made responsible.

"I was offered my dream job. A company I had worked for in Belgium, Dialogic was looking for a broadcast manager in Qatar and I was fascinated by the chance to work in an exotic Kingdom on an exciting project. In retrospect, I might have been a bit naïve," admits M. Bogaert.

In early 2008 after several ad hoc projects in Qatar, Dialogic, through its newly formed subsidiary Dialogic Qatar, won the contract to promote the Qatar Marine Festival, a major cultural event that the Qatari government, which is ultimately run by its ruling family, hopes will promote the Emirate's cultural attractions.

Within months of M. Bogaert's arrival in Doha, the relationship between Dialogic Qatar and the festival organising committee had soured and the group claims it was not paid. The company's then managing director was dismissed.

Dialogic claimed the organising committee owed it several million Qatari riyals and M. Bogaert, being the most senior staff member, was asked to run the company. He was charged with salvaging its relationship with its only client.

But by July last year, the talks had broken down further, and with no cashflow, M. Bogaert says the group decided against pursing the festival organisers for debts. His job changed to one of trying to liquidate the company, and he began looking forward to going home to his wife Els and children Ralph, aged seven and Roxanne, who is nine.

It was at this point that M. Bogaert's situation worsened. When the Qatari group was formed, a 51 per cent stake was given to Farukh Mohammad Azad, a Pakistan-born Qatari national who had worked with Dialogic on other events in the Gulf state. He was influential in Dialogic winning the contract and was considered a vital contact with Qatari authorities. Mr Azad has since refused to attend any liquidation hearings in Doha and, crucially for M. Bogaert, refuses to sign his exit permit, preventing him leaving.

Late last year, when initial moves were made to liquidate the Qatari group, M. Bogaert resigned. He alleges, however, that Mr Azad is holding him responsible for losses related to the collapse of Dialogic Qatar. A criminal case against him was thrown out last November, he says, but as Mr Azad refuses to attend the liquidation hearings, there is no way the group can be wound-up.

Despite repeated attempts, Mr Azad could not be contacted this week, while officials from the Qatari embassy in London refused to discuss the case, or the risks of working in the Emirate.

However, Philippe Housiaux, the chief executive of Dialogic Belgium, corroborates M. Bogaert's story, and says the organising committee has no interest in negotiating: "The festival organising committee claimed that we owed it $500,000 after the contract broke down. We had little working capital, which they knew, and so a claim for so much money was clearly an indication that they no longer wanted to do business with us."

He dismisses M. Bogaert's claims that Dialogic is not doing enough to help, however, adding that attempts are being made by Belgian consular officials in Doha to organise a meeting with Mr Azad in Europe.

M. Bogaert's story is one of an unfortunate individual overtaken by events. He is not alone, however, with an increasing number of Westerners, including Britons, finding themselves in trouble over unpaid debts in the Gulf. The best-known case is that of Hampshire businessman George Atkinson, who was jailed in Dubai in 1997 after being found guilty of bribery and over-charging the state for a golf course he was designing. Mr Atkinson, who has always denied the charges, was freed after serving nearly seven years in prison.

More recently, others have fallen foul of Dubai debt laws, which are governed by Islamic principals: sources confirmed last week that the number of Britons in Dubai unable to leave because of unpaid debts runs into "double digits".

In recent months there have been several stories of debt-financed luxury cars being left at Dubai's airport as those deciding to leave have abandoned their vehicles, rather than face creditors who can block travel.

The Foreign Office website, used by many travellers seeking up to date advice, warns: "Potential job-seekers should also be aware that under Qatari Labour Law the employer's permission to leave Qatar is required on every occasion. You should also ask potential employers whether they operate under an exemption from the Qatari Labour Law, as this may affect the terms and conditions under which you are employed."

Those thinking of working in Dubai are warned: "Fraud, including bouncing cheques and the non-payment of bills (including hotel bills), is regarded seriously in the UAE and can result in imprisonment and/or a fine. Bail is generally not available to non-residents of the UAE who are arrested for crimes involving fraud."

For M. Bogaert, there is still no prospect of him being allowed to return home. His wife and children have organised several events in Belgium to highlight his case, including a protest at the Qatari Embassy in Brussels. He has started a blog that he updates regularly from Doha, but for the time being, he has few plans beyond his next gig.

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