Emirates: The world’s biggest criminal paradise

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© IBI World Limited

There is a tax haven that doesn’t actually need the money from tax evasion, because it is still among the richest in the world. The United Arab Emirates have set up dozens of areas outside the law, and with these they earn impressive sums of money, but they use them to transform the country: with a construction sector that is unique in the world, with the installation of science-fiction infrastructures, with the desalination of sea water to transform the desert into cultivable areas, but above all to acquire power – a power that must be absolute, like the local monarchy, which knows no other law but the selfishness of its leaders, for whom human life is worth less than zero. What really counts are the weapons and the cyber security and attack systems, the mercenary armies and the international death squads. A time bomb, which risks exploding at any moment, and which is growing thanks to the cynicism and blindness of Western governments, which are allies of this terrifying little country in the Middle East. 

When one speaks of the Arab Emirates, one’s mind flies to Dubai. And it could not be otherwise: it is an incredible place, the mirror of imaginary future worlds. It’s the Disneyland of consumerism, and every building is designed to amaze: Burj Khalifa, at 829.80 metres, is the world’s tallest skyscraper, but it’s also an indoor ski slope, complete with snow, while outside the scorching temperature reaches 45°C. And let’s not forget the crazy artificial islands of Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, emblematic proof of how capitalism can defy the laws of physics – and destroy vast and delicate ecosystems undisturbed[1].

Glitz and modernity fill every corner, glittering buildings fit between amazing structures with incomprehensible functionality: an overbearing, brazen exaltation of wealth. An army of poor people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Thailand, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran and the Philippines[2]. Their passports are confiscated and their wages denied (often for years[3]), they live in dormitory camps made of containers stacked one on top of the other, in immense shanty towns without sewage and drinking water; they sleep six to a space of two metres by four, ready to go to work every day for long hours in terrible heat, where death is a daily companion[4].

A horrible contrast to the ostentation, generated not only by the oil industry, but by global finance: banking, high-tech, commerce and tourism, and a thriving real estate market for a population that grows as wealthy Europeans and Americans choose the Emirates as a haven for their assets – Russian oligarchs, Taiwanese bankers, Lebanese traders and Iranian investors, all guests well received by a landlord who asks them for no identification – only their bank account. In the streets of this megalopolis, the business of one of the most impressive tax havens and money laundering crossroads on the planet is conducted. A country led by a ruler who is also the main businessman – and therefore brings political, religious and economic power together in the hands of a single family.

From pearl pirates to powerful financiers

Gulf Emirates leaders meet in 1968[5]

The federation of the United Arab Emirates covers an area of 83,600 km² (the size of Austria) and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, with its 67,000 km², occupies 86.7% of the country’s surface area, which is largely covered by an arid sandy desert bordering on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman. Inhabited for centuries by a people of sailors and pearl hunters, it was converted to Islam in the 7th century, and its Carmati clan founded a sheikhdom powerful enough to conquer Mecca – only to begin a rapid decline, leading to the local tribes surviving on piracy[6], in an anarchy interrupted by the British army, which landed here in 1820 and imposed peace on the clans in 1853[7].

The coast, once known as the Pirates’ Coast, changed its name to Trucial Oman, which is nominally a British protectorate, although Her Majesty’s Army has little interest in the area, and finally withdrew in 1971, paving the way for the United Arab Emirates Federation[8]. Sheikh Zayed bin Al Nahyan, who commands Abu Dhabi, together with Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai, are the advocates of the agreement between the six original Emirates reached on 2nd December 1971. The seventh Emirate, Ra’s al-Khaimah, joined the federation the following year[9], while Qatar and Bahrain opted for their own autonomy.

After the first post-war period, geological prospecting for oil was conducted in the areas of Abu Dhabi and Dubai – and thirty years later, in 1962, the first cargo of crude oil was exported[10]. The emirate’s dizzying economic rise began: the oil revenue was enormous and profoundly changed the morphology of the desert – with the construction of bridges, roads, electricity and water supply networks, a telecommunications system and an airport, Jebel Ali. The entire federation, which in 1971 had a population of 279,000, bordering on nomadism, is rapidly transformed into a lively economic centre of over ten million inhabitants[11].

Between 1940 and 1977, Dubai grew from 20,000 to 200,000 inhabitants, which quadrupled in just ten years – and today it has almost three million[12]. In 1990, at the height of the urban boom, Dubai’s ruler Rashid bin Sa’id Al Maktum died and his son, Maktum bin Rashid Al Maktum, took his place. The new sheikh is the first to ask himself how to maintain his wealth the day the oil runs out: Abu Dhabi has reserves for more than a century, while the forecasts for Dubai are extremely pessimistic – there is very little time left[13]. This prompts the sheikh to launch numerous ambitious projects in the fields of trade, tourism and services, so that the importance of oil is waning: while in the 1970s the percentage of GDP linked to hydrocarbons was 90%, in 2013 it was 28.2%[14].

Maktum bin Rashid attracted worldwide attention with his pharaonic projects, and loosened the grip of a law that prohibited foreigners from buying property and now allows them to buy property in designated areas without requiring residence – a decision that gave a huge boost to the real estate market in the mid-2000s, which is now the fulcrum of Dubai’s economy: in 2021 alone, 84,772 transactions were recorded for a value of 82 billion dollars, with the number increasing by 65% and the value by 71% compared to the previous year[15]. The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), a special economic zone, a tax and customs paradise, was created in 2004[16]. It is a 110-hectare financial hub for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) markets, where 25,600 professionals and 2,500 companies now officially operate[17] – a paradise among tax havens.

Dubai’s meteoric growth between 1990 and 2015[18]

All you need is a residence permit to operate in the banking system: you open a current account and can transfer funds without restriction and without control. The banks that have opened branches here (HSBC, Abbey National, ABN AmRo, Dresdner Bank, Barclays…) specialise in transferring not only money, but any kind of goods, no matter if they are prohibited elsewhere[19]. This explains the steep increase in the number of inhabitants: swarms of rich people arrive with their hidden business deals, and there is a need for lots of cheap workers (90% of the inhabitants are immigrant workers, most of them from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh[20]). And with this rapid expansion of Dubai, Abu Dhabi is beginning to suffer from competition, there is bad blood between the sheikhs, and the Emirates risk political implosion. The solution is similar to that found two thousand years earlier in monarchic Rome: the alternation between the Latins and the Etruscans becomes that between the Al Nahyan and the Al Maktoum[21].

All the Sheikh’s men

The map of power in the United Arab Emirates[22]

To explain the organisation of the Emirates, given that it is a hereditary monarchy, it is sufficient to analyse the positions held by the most powerful men of each family, starting from Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, third son of Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum: 73 years old, Minister of Defence and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, since 1995 Crown Prince of Dubai and, since the death of his brother on 4 January 2006, Sovereign of Dubai. Known for his extensive collection of Maybachs, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Mercedes[23], he is the CEO of Emirates Airline & Group[24], a subsidiary of The Emirates Group, owned by the Dubai government: the fourth largest airline in the world. He is the owner of 99.67%[25] of Dubai Holding[26] which has four main operating units: Jumeirah Group[27], TECOM Investments[28], Dubai Properties Group[29] and Emirates International Telecommunications[30]: tourism, shopping malls, construction and telecommunications.

In 2020, it bought the real estate company Meraas, one of the largest in the country[31], but not all deals went well: in 2015, Dubai World was liquidated[32], a holding company that administered and managed the maintenance of almost one hundred properties owned by the Dubai government. These included the DP World maritime terminal[33] (80% stake[34]), Dubai Maritime City[35] and the luxury real estate company Nakheel Properties[36]. He is the founder and owner of the Sheikh Maktoum Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum Investment Group (MIG) [37], an investment holding company, then founded the Mohammed bin Rashid Global Initiatives[38], a charitable foundation that coordinates 33 other charitable foundations.

In 2005 he founded the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government[39] (aka Dubai School of Government), then the low-cost airline FlyDubai, and in 1997 he founded the hotel management company Sheikh Mohammed, which manages the Dubai Burj Al Arab hotel, now part of Dubai Holding. He is responsible for the Palm Islands project, the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), and the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre[40].

Since 1992, he has been the proud owner of Godolphin Stables (United Arab Emirates, England, Ireland, Australia, Japan and the United States), whose horses have won over 6000 races worldwide, including 315 prestigious Group One races. He is also the owner of Darley Stud[41], the largest thoroughbred racing breeding company. He owns the 162-metre yacht Dubai, the fourth largest in the world, and yet, since 2008, he has been hiding an unspecified part of his wealth abroad, through a network coordinated by Axiom Ltd. Tortola (Virgin Islands), which in turn controls Tandem Investco Ltd. Tortola[42], Tandem DirectorCo Ltd. Tortola and Allied International Investments Ltd. Nassau (Bahamas) [43].

In Abu Dhabi, the Al Nahyan family is instead in charge, long led by Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, national security adviser, the man who runs Emirates Defense Industries Co (EDIC), created in 2014 after the merger of some state-owned companies: Mubadala Development, Tawazun Holding and Emirates Advanced Invest Group[44]. EDIC is owned by Mubadala Development Company[45], an investment fund of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (60%) and Tawazun Holding[46]. In November 2019, the holding company was absorbed into EDGE Group[47] owned by the UAE government.

His offshore system originated with Victorian International Enterprises Ltd, a British Virgin Islands company cancelled in 2016[48], which controlled a stake in Al Seer Marine[49], an Abu Dhabi shipbuilding company, whose majority share belongs to IHC International Holding Company[50], a holding company chaired by Tahnoon himself[51]. He is the President of ADQ[52], a State holding company, owns 45% in the Louis Dreyfus Company (an agro-alimentary company with seat in Rotterdam) [53], is the President of the First Abu Dhabi Bank[54], of Group42[55], a cybernetics company (involved in the ToTok scandal[56]), and is President[57] of the Aramis Partners Ltd. [58]   an investment company based in the Dubai International Financial Centre.

He is the chairman of the Royal Group[59] (media, commerce, finance, real estate, manufacturing, construction, information technology, education, entertainment, healthcare, hospitality, robotics, science and more[60]) and is CEO[61] of the Emirates Foundation[62], founded and runs the Advanced Science and Innovation Company, a new technology company[63], and for the weekend owns the 121.5 metre[64], $250 million yacht Maryah[65]. His wife Khawla Ahmed Khalifa Alsuwaidi has set up companies in the Virgin Islands to secretly buy property in the UK[66]: Caldora Trading Ltd. Tortola[67], Moonline Company II Ltd. Tortola[68] and Spirea Associates Ltd. Tortola[69].

Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan is the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, and is considered by Forbes to be one of the richest men in the world: in addition to controlling 97.8 billion barrels of reserves, he manages one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, with declared assets of $830 billion[70]. He is the owner of SBK Holding Llc[71], and is mainly involved in real estate: since 1995 he has spent $2 million to buy more than 66 acres of land on the main island of the Seychelles, Mahé, where his palace is being built, owns luxury properties in London worth more than $1.7 billion and owns Azzam[72], the world’s longest yacht 590 feet (180 m), costing between $400 and $600 million a year. Panamanian trustee Mossack y Fonseca has managed more than 30 of its offshore companies, through which it owns commercial and residential properties in expensive areas of London such as Kensington and Mayfair[73]. Property acquisitions have reached a value of £5.5 billion[74].

His brother Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan is the deputy prime minister of the Emirates, the minister of presidential affairs, he is married to a daughter of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, he got into trouble because he was involved in the 1MDB scandal[75], and because his yacht Topaz was allegedly paid for with stolen funds[76]. He is on the board of directors of the Supreme Council for Financial and Economic Affairs[77], of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) [78], he is the president of the Emirates Investment Authority[79], since 2005 he has been a board member of the Supreme Petroleum Council[80], a member of the board of directors of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) [81], former President of IPIC, sovereign fund then absorbed in 2017 by Mubadala Investment Company[82], President[83] of the Emirates Investment Authority (EIA) [84] and of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority[85], all government agencies that control the regularity of the financial and agro-alimentary markets.

Prince Mansour is vice-president of the Sheikh Zayed Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation[86], president of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development[87], vice-president of the Mubadala Investment Company[88], has a 32% stake in Virgin Galactic[89], has invested 280 million dollars in space flights for tourists[90]; He owns Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, collaborates with British Sky Broadcasting in Sky News Arabia, and is the owner of Abu Dhabi United Group, an investment company set up in 2008 to lead the acquisition of Manchester City Football Club[91], is the owner of Newton Investment and Development Llc and owns the yacht Topaz[92].

Mohammed Dahlan (left), the killer of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his friend Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right)[93]

But the most important man is another: Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, son of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is the brother of the present sovereign, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whose position he will inherit when he dies – therefore, he is the most powerful man in the Emirates and, perhaps, in the entire Middle East[94]. He is the Minister of Defence of Abu Dhabi and Chief of Staff of the Air Force of the Emirates, he is the head of the Mubadala Investment Company, the patrimonial fund of Abu Dhabi[95], he is the head of the EDGE Group, he is the CEO of ADNOC and the owner of the yacht Rabdan[96].

He is the man who coordinates the activities of the Al-Nahyans, manages confidential diplomatic relations[97], coordinates the secret police and various mercenary organisations, directs the strategy of cyber warfare companies, and is the world’s largest legal arms broker and one of the main sponsors of Donald Trump and the American supremacist far right[98]. He is also the man who brought to the Emirates the most unscrupulous, dangerous and reputable businessmen on the planet, who today, thanks to more than 19,000 offshore companies, manage assets in excess of 100 billion dollars[99]. And he is the man who has forged a historic political and military alliance – simultaneously – with Israel and Iran[100].

The new world capital of gold and money laundering

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (left) and Mohamed Shakarchi (right)[101]

When the emirate of Abu Dhabi began to think about the future after oil some 30 years ago, the Al-Maktoum family invested in gold and silver – setting up a refinery, the Emirates Gold DMCC, capable of transforming any quantity of metals, no matter where they come from, into legal ingots[102]. To achieve this result, the Al-Maktoum family invited Mahmoud Kassem Shakarchi to Dubai, an Iraqi businessman who, in the 1960s, made his money in Lebanon through smuggling[103] and then moved to Switzerland, where he founded Shakarchi Trading, a trading company which soon ended up in the crosshairs of the Italian magistracy, and with the money earned from that first experience, created the first refineries in Ticino, famous as an instrument of world organized crime[104].

Shakarchi surrounded himself with influential people, such as the lawyer Hans W. Kopp, chairman of the board of directors of Shakarchi Trading and husband of the Federal Minister of Justice Elizabeth Kopp. When Hans ended up in the criminal investigation documents, his wife protected him and, later, overwhelmed by the scandal, was forced to resign – when Shakarchi had by then left Switzerland for the Emirates[105], maintaining a legal refinery, Pamp in Castel San Pietro[106], and a network of offshore companies, the leader of which is the Sharaf Trust in Nassau (Bahamas). Today the Shakarchi family, led (after the patriarch’s death in 2012) by his son Marwan, is present with the MKS Group all over the world: Turkey, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the United States, Switzerland, China and, obviously, the Emirates[107]. The holding company is in the Bahamas, MKS Holding Ltd. Nassau[108], and the group serves all the major traffickers and smugglers of gold and silver on the planet[109].

For this reason, the Emirates have for years been a candidate for the watch list of countries which support organised crime[110], especially since the offshore zones in the Emirates have become 39, scattered throughout the national territory, each independent from the others[111], so that hidden capital becomes almost impossible to search for, even with the support of requests for international legal rogatory[112]. But inclusion in these lists would not change anything: until the international community prevents the existence of areas in which even the laws on the military intangibility of nations are worthless, the Emirates will continue to grow, to build military bases in foreign countries[113] and to send death squads, led by mercenaries ready for anything, wherever the Sheiks feel their dreams of power are threatened.

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[108] https://opencorporates.com/companies/bs/163837B

[109] https://panamapapers.investigativecenters.org/drc/  

[110] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-04/uae-faces-risk-of-inclusion-on-global-watchlist-over-dirty-money

[111] https://www.uaefreezones.com/UAEOffshore_Banking.html

[112] https://fsi.taxjustice.net/PDF/UnitedArabEmirates.pdf ; https://www.fatf-gafi.org/countries/u-z/unitedarabemirates/documents/mer-uae-2020.html ; https://www.internationalinvestment.net/news/4042837/uae-risk-joining-malta-fatf-grey-list-aml-concerns ; https://merip.org/2002/03/gray-money-corruption-and-the-post-september-11-middle-east/ ; https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2019-10-14%E2%80%94%22Tahnoun-bin-zayed%22%E2%80%94-what-do-you-know-about-the-shadow-prince-in-the%20-uae%E2%80%93.BJ_22kMFr.html

[113] https://ibiworld.eu/en/socotra-the-last-wonderful-enchanted-island/

IBI World Limited

IBI World Limited

Seit 2004 ist Info Brokers International eine der weitaus vielfältigste Gemeinschaft von unabhängigen Rechercheure aus Italien, Deutschland, Russland und aus der Schweiz. Die leitende Persönlichkeiten kommen aus Jahrzehnten Wirtschaftsjournalismus oder aus der Finanzwelt. Unsere Kunden sind Banken, Industrien, Versicherungsgesellschaften, aber auch staatlichen Behörden und Rechtsanwälte. Wir stellen zur Verfügung ein imposanter Netz von freien MitarbeiterInnen, derer Kompetenz in sämtlichen Räume der Wirtschaft, der Justiz und der Politik reicht. Wir arbeiten vor allem in Europa, in Afrika und in Asien, unser Schwerpunkt liegt in der Untersuchung in den Offshore-Gerichtsbarkeiten.

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