DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Dubai World, the cash-strapped conglomerate at the center of Dubai's debt crisis, appears set for an unaccustomed period of retrenchment after the emirate's top finance official said yesterday the company may need to change course and unload assets as it struggles to pay back lenders.
What eventually gets sold remains uncertain. Clearer is the city-state's position that it won't be responsible for Dubai World's debts, renewing questions about its backing of other state-run companies.
"Like any company that has commitments, part of getting liquidity is selling some assets," Dubai Finance Department Director-General Abdul Rahman al-Saleh said in an interview aired by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
"These are assets of a company, not assets of a government," he said, adding later that the restructuring was aimed at keeping Dubai World viable going forward.
The comments appeared to cement concerns that Dubai was washing its hands of debts racked up by companies it created and backed during the city-state's frenetic boom years earlier this decade. Easy money and unbridled ambition transformed the tiny sheikdom from desert hamlet to pulsing Arab boomtown.
Dubai's main stock exchange fell 5.8 percent yesterday, with stocks sinking to their lowest in more than four months.
The sale of any major Dubai World holdings would mark a stark about-face for the conglomerate, which had repeatedly downplayed talk it might need to unload pieces of its rapidly acquired global empire even as Dubai's financial concerns grew more acute over the last year.
But two weeks ago, it said it needed to restructure and reduce its debt.
"This is the inevitable next step, really," said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham who has written extensively about the history and politics of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is a city-state within the UAE.
Davidson and others said they expected some of Dubai World's overseas property would be among the first on the auction block.
"It's damaging for their reputation, but it doesn't do much to alter the status quo back home," Davidson said.
A Dubai World spokeswoman declined to comment.
Dubai World has already taken off the bargaining table some key assets, including its profitable port operations. The company runs the world's fourth-biggest seaport operator, DP World, with operations on six continents.
Other state-run crown jewels not part of the conglomerate, such as the Middle East's biggest airline Emirates, are also unlikely to be sold for now, analysts say.
Dubai World's story was essentially that of Dubai - a heavy reliance on borrowed money in recent years to carve out markets far beyond the tiny emirate's shores while building up the city-state, one of seven semiautonomous entities making up the UAE.