x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Dh1-a-day rental car mirage

One Rent Car was thought to be an ingenious business idea but today it is inoperable, in debt and its owner has fled the country.

A Dh1-per-day One Rent Car rental vehicle is driven around Abu Dhabi in August.
A Dh1-per-day One Rent Car rental vehicle is driven around Abu Dhabi in August.

In principle, it was an ingenious business idea: plaster cars with paid advertisements and rent the vehicles for just one dirham per day. But according to renters, advertisers and court documents, One Rent Car is inoperable, in debt and its owner has fled the country.

Hundreds of people had bought into the idea, paying a Dh3,000 (US$815) refundable deposit to rent one the cars as part of what the company's website described as "a highly effective marketing platform to companies and an economical car-rental option for the individuals". The company claimed it had 92 cars, and managers boasted its product was "almost community service-oriented - fun and enjoyable for the community".

Companies including Etihad Airways and Chuck E Cheese paid thousands of dirhams to advertise on the company's Mazda and Kia vehicles. The start-up in August was covered in The National. According to court documents, 110 people have filed a complaint with the Sharjah Police against One Rent Car, which was founded by the Iranian-French businessman Hakim Gouasmia. Police have told the complainants that the matter would be referred to the civil courts.

Because the company had a branch in Dubai, a separate case has been filed with the authorities there on behalf of those who paid deposits but did not get their money back. Several online groups have started to organise other lawsuits against the company. It is not clear how many people may have signed up but did not receive their deposits back. Also unclear is exactly how much the company might owe.

According to some of the clients and advertisers, Mr Gouasmia's sponsor, Mohammed Sharif Abdulaziz al Awadi, told some of the clients they would get their money back. According to documents, he promised in writing to pay back the money by February 15. But in an interview, Mr al Awadi claimed he had been scammed by his business partner. Mr Gouasmia "escaped with the money", Mr al Awadi said. He declined to comment further, saying: "The whole thing is with the court. That is all I can say."

It is not known whether Mr al Awadi signed power of attorney over to Mr Gouasmia. That would give Mr Gouasmia the legal right to do everything from opening a bank account to setting up a telephone line in the company's name. But it also would hold him legally responsible for any criminal activity and distance the local partner from any wrongdoing directly related to the operation of the company, legal experts said.

What remains of the company appears to be insolvent. According to One Rent Car bank statements, the account balance is negative Dh43,104.18. A cheque for Dh65,000 in the name of National Bank of Abu Dhabi bounced on December 6. Mr Gouasmia did not respond to interview requests submitted to his personal e-mail address. A representative from the Chuck E Cheese entertainment centre in Dubai confirmed that the company spent Dh75,000 on advertising, making it One Rent Car's largest account. One Rent Car put Chuck E Cheese's adverts on 30 cars, the representative said; and then "overnight they just ran away."

A representative for Etihad also confirmed the airline advertised with One Rent Car, but the contract ended last year. The company offices in Sharjah and Dubai operated until the beginning of February but have since been closed; there is no answer at either office or mobile contact numbers. The fate of the vehicles is not known. The website, however, is still functioning. It allows for clients to pay using PayPal, a secure means of online payment without using a credit card.

According to the website, the company had plans to expand to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Those initiatives appear not to have materialised. The general manager, Luella Kay, an Australian, did not respond to e-mails or phone calls. As there has been no verdict in the case, and no international arrest warrant for those involved. myoussef@thenational.ae