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Matt Joyce had the world at his feet. Now he is staring at a Dubai cell wall
Rick Feneley (Morning Herald – Sydney)

UNTIL his arrest for suspected bribery last month, Matt Joyce was in command of the world’s biggest waterfront development, the most audacious project yet in Dubai Inc’s high-rise fantasia.

Joyce, the Australian managing director of the state-backed Dubai Waterfront, boasted of its vital statistics in a recent interview. Stretching 30 kilometres, it would cover 14,000 hectares, making it twice the size of Hong Kong Island.

dubai-waterfront

It would dwarf the emirates’s famous World and Palms developments. It would reclaim six islands and involve shifting enough sand to fill Wembley Stadium three times every month. And it would become home to 400,000 people within five years.

“We have the luxury of creating this city on a blank canvas,” said Joyce, who would oversee the construction of yet another space-age Atlantis rising from the Arabian Gulf. But Dubai’s blank canvas has become murky. Few of the world’s property bubbles became as inflated as Dubai’s, and few have burst so explosively in the global meltdown. Joyce, 43, the former Sydney-based chief of the respected property group St Hilliers, was among five senior executives made redundant from Dubai Waterfront last month.

Then, on January 25, he and two Australian colleagues were taken in for questioning as part of a year-long crackdown on fraud and corruption among state-backed property developers and banks. One of the Australians, a 55-year-old man from Brisbane, was released. But Joyce and another Melbourne man, 44, are still being held without charge. Both have families in Dubai.

Last night, Sydney time, the prosecution was in court applying to extend their custody for another 15 to 30 days. Their Australian lawyer, Martin Amad, was there and told the Herald: “No charges have been laid and both men strenuously deny the allegations.” He said they were confident that authorities would soon determine their innocence based on documentation they had supplied. He would not name Joyce’s colleague.

The men are among more than 20 executives in jail as part of Dubai’s fraud and corruption investigation. All are yet to be charged, but some have spent almost a year behind bars. Dubai police have given no details on who the Australians allegedly bribed.

Joyce’s lawyer in Dubai, Salem Al Sha’ali, had told the Gulf News:
“The suspected transaction cannot be considered a bribe. The figure isn’t exact and the amount was given back because the deal didn’t go through. It’s a big misunderstanding.”

Mr Amad said the quote, as reported, was inaccurate and he insisted there was no transaction and no deal. “No bribe was paid.

A former work colleague of Joyce’s, from Australand in Sydney, described him as “straight and decent”. “If there’s anything there, it would be totally out of character,” he said.

For the 16 months before his shift to Dubai, in April 2006, Joyce was chief executive at St Hilliers in Sydney. It is well known in the industry that he parted on unhappy terms, although his termination contract prevents St Hilliers from revealing the reasons. Joyce joined Dubai Waterfront, whose parent company is the government-owned Nakheel. Nakheel is the biggest developer in the United Arab Emirates and has projects worth about $US80 billion ($124
billion).

Asked how the Australians were being treated in jail, Mr Amad said they had no complaint. They were “anxious to be released” but there was slim chance overnight of bail. Joyce had been made redundant shortly before his arrest. Asked if there were fears that the men were being made scapegoats for the broader corruption inquiry, Mr Amad said he could not comment. “It is not an argument we are putting forward.”

Regardless of the case against the Australians, Dubai Inc is on trial in the eyes of the investment world, and the fraud crackdown has signalled the Emirate’s determination to send a clear message that it is a good place to do business.
Dubai property values are in free-fall. Some forecast they will drop by as much as 50 per cent this year.

Along with thousands of redundancies, local police reported at least 3000 cars abandoned outside Dubai international Airport in the four months to January. Many had keys in the ignition. It seems debt-ridden and jobless foreigners are fleeing Dubai. Nakheel insists Dubai Waterfront is forging ahead.

Unlike the other emirates, Dubai has little oil to speak of. It has only its real estate, built on the whims of its rich and its rulers. Only on this can it guarantee its future as a global financial hub.

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