We are all still feeling the impact the global downturn is having on the construction sector in the UAE. Not only is it a challenge to find work in this market, increasing numbers of contractors and consultants are finding it difficult to recover payment for work they have already undertaken.

In the past many companies working in the region have been wary of pursuing their entitlements through formal dispute resolution processes, due to perceived cultural sensitivities, many now feel that they have no choice but to consider the available debt recovery options.

In many instances, the amounts owed are not disputed. However, in the current market some developers/contractors consider that they should not be obliged to pay their debts in full, and are attempting to avoid, defer, reduce and/or make piecemeal payments over a substantial period of time.

How to Recover Your Debts in the UAE?

Wherever you are from, outstanding payments can be frustrating, not to mention costly. However, a contractor will usually be aware of the tools available in its home jurisdiction in order to speed payment along.

When working overseas, however, the different cultural, legal and practical issues can make the whole process much more challenging. In the UAE, this challenge is in part due to the local civil legal system. Those instruments that common law practitioners are so used to wielding are not present in quite the same form.

The options available to pursue non-payment of due monies will depend on the dispute resolution mechanisms contained within the relevant contract. Typically, a contractor/consultant will have to litigate or arbitrate to recover payments.

In addition, there are a number of procedures available under local laws that could assist in the recovery of debts. Potential options available under UAE law include:

1. An Order of Payment

1.1 An order for payment within the UAE is a developing area of law. It can therefore often be hard to determine the likelihood of success before the UAE Courts when making such an application.

1.2 It is a procedure where a party applies to the Courts for summary judgment against a defendant for commercial debts, substantiated by a commercial instrument such as a bill of exchange, promissory note or cheque, which are valid, but not paid.

1.3 If a party has a successful application for an order for payment, the outcome would be a direction from the Courts for the outstanding debts to be paid by the debtor. Success is by no means guaranteed, but the mere threat of an order for payment can be a persuasive tool for the creditor, as an outstanding debt can bring with it considerable public embarrassment within the local community. This in turn can act as an incentive for the debtor to settle any outstanding debts.

2. Precautionary Attachment Order

2.1 A precautionary attachment order, if granted, essentially allows the Court to seize the assets in question at the claimant’s request prior to judgment/arbitral award in order to preserve those assets during the trial. It is as close to seeking injunctive relief as it gets in the UAE. The procedure, timing and effect of precautionary attachment orders can at times be somewhat unclear.

2.2 Precautionary attachment orders are made in absence of the other party and are ordinarily used as a tool to ensure that assets are not disposed of prior to receiving the court’s judgment/arbitration.

2.3 The order can be made against any assets in the UAE, including machinery, bank accounts, goods or other assets owned by the defendant and under his possession or owned by a defendant, but in the possession of a third party. It should be noted that the assets, money or material to be attached must be client specified before the application will be granted.

2.4 If a precautionary attachment order is granted, the substantive case must be filed at Court within eight days.

3. An Order for Sale

3.1 This is a procedure whereby a claimant applies to Court for an order that a property or part thereof be sold where a defendant has failed to pay for material and equipment supplied for that property.

4. An Order for a Lien Over Property:

4.1 In certain circumstances a contractor can exercise a form of lien over a property on which it is doing work until payment for that work is received.

Substantive Action

As discussed above, pursing substantive action is also a possibility, either through the local courts or via arbitration. Litigation in Dubai can be both costly and time-consuming. There are cases that continue for five years or more and only local advocates can appear and plead before the Courts. Arbitration might allow a claimant to remain within their common law comfort zone, however cases usually take at least a year to reach a decision and the costs are not insignificant.

Practical tips

(a) Examine the payment terms in the contract;
(b) Ascertain your entitlement to the outstanding debt and collate all the documentation in support of it;
(c) Review the dispute resolution mechanism in the contract, if any;
(d) Determine what assets the debtor owns and where these assets are held; and
(e) Review the amount in question and determine what is the best avenue for recovery.

Final thoughts

The road to debt recovery within the UAE, as in many countries, can be a protracted one. A supplier of services should, as far as possible, try to recover the amounts outstanding from the debtor before bringing any action for recovery through the Courts. A claimant needs to demonstrate clear and strong evidence of the outstanding debts if their application before the Courts is to be successful. With advocacy and court fees included, the process can be a long and costly one, so you should make sure that the amount outstanding will offset the cost. If you have an arbitration agreement then this can be a less costly mechanism for substantive recovery if the other avenues, such as the payment order, fail.

Helen Turner and Andrew Mackenzie

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