Banks in the UAE are judge, jury, and jailer
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
In May of 2018, British national Ryan Cornelius was coming to the end of a 10 year prison sentence in Dubai when he was unexpectedly brought by police to a judge’s office where he was informed that his punishment was being extended another 20 years. He was further told that the judiciary no longer had anything to do with his case, and that if he ever wanted to get out of jail, he would have to plead for his freedom with Dubai Islamic Bank. For Ryan, already in his sixties, this essentially means he will die in prison.
Just over 10 years ago, Ryan was embarking on an ambitious property development in Dubai, at a time when the country was eager for foreign investors to help build the many lavish real estate projects that put Dubai on the map. Ryan had a long record as a successful businessman in the region, first by building up a prosperous construction company from scratch in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 90s; then pursuing multiple ventures in Bahrain and the UAE, all of which blossomed into highly profitable businesses.
Ryan and a partner, Charles Ridley, began their biggest real estate project in Dubai, called The Plantation, in 2004. They had a lease on prime Dubai development land and a licence to build a luxury housing complex complete with equestrian facilities and retail outlets. Ridley’s associate, a Turkish national by the name of Eren Nil, helped the partners obtain a $500 million line of credit from DIB; as Nil had a close relationship with the then chairman of the Bank, Mohammed Kharbash; and the plan went ahead with every expectation of success.
However, amidst the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, DIB abruptly called in the loan in an apparent attempt to stabilise the bank’s assets. The Plantation project was at risk of total collapse, so Ryan brought in a UK law firm to negotiate with DIB, and eventually the bank agreed to a restructuring agreement that would allow the partners to continue developing The Plantation; already valued at over $1 billion.
All of Ryan’s businesses were struck by the financial crisis, but he struggled to keep The Plantation afloat; using his own personal savings to help pay the first tranche of $70 million required by the new loan arrangement. He knew that if he could weather the financial storm, if this project came to fruition, the sacrifices would be worth it.
When he was returning to Dubai after a working trip abroad in 2008 however, Ryan was shocked when he was detained and then arrested at the airport. He was inexplicably charged with fraud, and soon after Charles Ridley was also arrested, as well as several former employees of DIB. The bank, now headed by a new chairman, Mohammed Shaibani, alleged that the $500 million line of credit had been granted for the purpose of trade finance and had been unlawfully diverted to property development.