Paris Hilton's BFF show now a courtroom drama

Dubai debut looks to be more than fashionably late with production firms locked in costly legal battles.

DUBAI // When Paris Hilton touched down in Dubai last June, the heiress/model/designer/actress/singer no doubt anticipated that a UAE version of her hit reality TV show, My New BFF, would add yet another glittering line to her heaving CV. "On this show you'll see the real me," she promised, as she began her search for the lucky resident who would become her "best friend forever" - well, until the next series, anyway. Seven months later, would-be fans of the programme have still yet to see the 29-year-old Miss Hilton - real or unreal - on screen at all.

The show remains unaired, the production companies behind it are locked in multimillion-dollar legal battles in Dubai and Los Angeles, and an executive of one of them is languishing in jail. In the US on Tuesday, Lionsgate Television filed a lawsuit for more than US$8 million (Dh29m) against Dubai-based Uniqon Emirates LLC. The action claimed that Uniqon, the local partner and producer, had failed to cough up $4.7m that was crucial to the show's completion. Uniqon was said to have signed an agreement to co-produce and distribute the MTV show in the Middle East. Lionsgate's federal lawsuit alleged breach of contract by Uniqon, its managing director Ehab Habib and his partner, Abdullah al Falasi.

Uniqon is allegedly without capital, assets, stock or stockholders, according to Lionsgate. Its complaint said the $6m budget was to have seen Lionsgate pay $1.5m and Uniqon cover the rest, with Habib and Mr al Falasi agreeing to produce at least eight 60-minute episodes of the show. Uniqon is also under pressure at home. It currently faces at least two lawsuits from V Producers, a division of the Abu Dhabi-based Viola Communications.

Uniqon lost a third lawsuit, which resulted in Habib being sent to prison for one year. Viola said V Producers was contracted by Uniqon to handle the day-to-day production of My New BFF. When Uniqon was unable to fulfil its financial obligations, V Producers paid some of the final costs to save the show, said Viola said. There were continuous efforts to resolve the matter, according to Viola, but Uniqon was unable to meet the payment deadline. V Producers sued and won.

There are other legal claims filed by Viola against Uniqon, but details of them have not been released. Unlike Miss Hilton, Uniqon proved to be publicity shy and was unavailable for comment. Its offices, at the Dubai Gold and Diamond Park, have not been used for at least three months and its telephone line is disconnected. Workers at offices nearby said there had been activity at Uniqon only rarely. "I see a person walking in and out once every few weeks. I honestly don't think they are still running," said Deepak Jai, a finance auditor at a neighbouring office.

Miss Hilton herself is no stranger to business wrangles. In the US, she has been involved in at least eight lawsuits relating to her or the use of her brand name, Paris Hilton. Perhaps her declaration to the UAE that "a lot of people will realise I'm a brand and a businesswoman" was not so much a prediction as a thinly veiled warning.