War profiteers, terror financiers and drug traffickers sanctioned by the US in recent years have used Dubai's real estate market as a haven for their assets, a new report alleges.
The report by the Washington-based Centre for Advanced Defence Studies, relying on leaked property data from the city-state, offers evidence to support the long-whispered rumours about Dubai’s real-estate boom.
It identifies some $US100 million ($A131 million) in suspicious purchases of apartments and villas across the city of skyscrapers in the United Arab Emirates, where foreign ownership fuels construction that now outpaces local demand.
The government-run Dubai Media Office said it could not comment on the report.
For its part, the centre known by the acronym C4ADS said Dubai has a “high-end luxury real estate market and lax regulatory environment prizing secrecy and anonymity above all else.”
“The permissive nature of this environment has global security implications far beyond the sands of the UAE,” the centre said in its report.
“In an interconnected global economy with low barriers impeding the movement of funds, a single point of weakness in the regulatory system can empower and enable a range of global illicit actors.”
The properties in question include million-dollar villas on the fronds of the man-made Palm Jumeirah archipelago to an apartment in the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
Among the highest-profile individuals named in the report is Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and one of that country’s wealthiest businessmen.
Makhlouf and his brother, also sanctioned by the US, own real estate on the Palm Jumeirah, according to the report. They also have ties to two UAE-based free-zone companies. The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms led from oil-rich Abu Dhabi, has opposed Assad in his country’s war.
Separately, the report identified some $US21 million in real estate still held by individuals associated with the Altaf Khanani money laundering organisation, a Pakistani ring that aided drug traffickers and Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda through its currency exchange houses.
Dubai, an Arabian Peninsula entrepot, long has been a favourite port of call for those skirting the law. Gold smuggling into India served as one of the emirate’s most lucrative trades for the decades after the pearling industry collapsed. Guns, drugs and other illicit cargo also moved through the city-state.
Over time, however, Dubai itself became a haven. The emirate’s decision in 2002 to allow foreign ownership of so-called “freehold” properties drew a rapid construction boom that attracted developers from across the world, including US President Donald Trump, whose name is on two golf course projects and villas.
Dubai’s easily flipped luxury properties offered an opportunity for those wanting to park money they otherwise couldn’t spend. The Federation of American Scientists warned based on news reports in 2002 that “money-laundering activity in the UAE may total $US1 billion annually.”
Money quickly flowed in from all corners, especially those now involved in the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, likely topping that.
From Kabul, the Afghan capital, over $US190 million in physical cash left for Dubai in three months in 2009 on commercial flights, according to an October 2009 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
In Pakistan, authorities believe citizens invested $US8 billion in Dubai’s property market over four years, possibly to evade taxes, officials said in 2017.