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America’s Gulf Ally: A Hub for Terrorist Money Laundering

We claim to be fighting terrorism. So why don't we get tougher on the United Arab Emirates?

A recent report should demonstrate once and for all that one of America’s top Middle Eastern allies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a money laundering hub for international criminals. Dubai’s real estate market has provided a safe haven for illicit funds connected to terrorism, drug cartels, and war profiteers, according to the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

As of 2002, foreign nationals have been allowed to buy property in the UAE. Those records are private, but the Center for Advanced Defense Studies received leaked city data. Their organization identified 81 luxury properties (valued at $107 million) in Dubai that were owned by individuals or networks of people sanctioned by the United States government.

Listed in this report were two high-profile Syrian businessmen, Wael Abdulkarim and Ahmad Barqawi, who were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2014. Both have acted as key allies to the Assad government by smuggling aviation fuel and oil into Syria. Those supplies have enabled the Assad government’s barrel bombing campaign that has killed thousands of Syrians.

Neither Abdulkarim nor Barqawi used a straw purchaser to acquire their properties; their homes are listed in their names. They’re also presumed to be currently living in Dubai. Furthermore, they’re apparently still conducting this type of business unfettered within the UAE.

On the other hand, one of the most prolific money launderers in the world, Altaf Khanani, isn’t free. Khanani, a Pakistani national, is currently serving prison time in the United States. He laundered billions of dollars in drug money for a variety of international criminals such as Colombian and Mexican cartels, Australian biker gangs, and Chinese organized crime groups.

Although Altaf Khanian remains behind bars, his network’s businesses are flourishing in the UAE. This organization has serviced some of the most notorious members of the underworld, including India’s top organized crime outfit, D Company. That group’s leader, Dawood Ibrahim, is believed to have masterminded a series of terrorist bombings in Bombay in 1993. The Khanani organization has also laundered money for full-fledged terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Remarkably, despite sanctions against an array of individuals connected with Khanian, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies discovered 59 properties valued at $22 million that were linked to his criminal organization.

These kinds of discoveries are to be expected in a nation that is hostile to the United States. However, the American government has excellent diplomatic relations with the UAE. In fact, the UAE’s cabinet, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, announced sanctions last month against nine Iranians. Those men provided millions of dollars to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which often facilitates proxy warfare and terrorism. But what are the point of such sanctions if they aren’t enforced consistently, across the board, including against those who live in Dubai?

The illicit funds in this report also include drug trafficking. A Mexican businessman, Hassein Eduardo Figueroa Gomez, is listed. His father, Ezio Benjamin Figueroa Vasquez, was arrested in 2011 for being a major supplier of the precursor chemicals needed to make methamphetamine.

Gomez was sanctioned one year later by the U.S. government. Nonetheless, he continued supplying Mexican cartels and operated businesses in Dubai for up to four years after the sanctions were put in place. In fact, he continues to own $4.34 million worth of personal property in Dubai.

The UAE is by no means the only hub of money laundering in the world. An estimated $800 billion to $2 trillion is laundered through the global financial system every year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. These transactions are generally highly complex, difficult to trace, and conducted by sophisticated individuals.

However, it’s fair to say that the UAE’s anti-money laundering controls as incredibly passive. The brazenness with which illicit funds flow through the UAE’s financial system was exposed by another NGO, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in a recently released report.

It revealed that criminals often “buy” luxury Dubai real estate properties in cash and then cancel the transactions shortly thereafter. The refunded bank check launders the money. There’s a network of people who charge hefty fees for this illegal service.

The OCCRP used an undercover reporter posing as a foreign real estate buyer. Every real estate agent stated that cash was the preferred payment method and assured the potential client of the UAE’s minimal reporting requirements.

Obviously, the U.S. government needs to pressure the UAE to crack down on this illegal activity, but serious action isn’t likely to be taken. All in all, there’s a different standard for corporate criminals who enable terrorism.

The U.S. government takes extreme (and arguably unconstitutional) action to fight terrorism, from stretching Congress’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to its breaking point to extensive drone strikes. Yet it doesn’t do nearly enough to pressure its own allies that are allowing terror financing within their borders. Unfortunately, there are a few roadblocks to change.

For one thing, it’s a game of whack-a-mole. Notably, the two aforementioned Syrian war profiteers, Wael Abdulkarim and Ahmad Barqawi, were also listed in the infamous Panama Papers scandal, yet they still weren’t apprehended.

Furthermore, the DOJ has never taken a strong stance against major financial institutions involved in money laundering. As mentioned in a previous TAC article, the handling of a case involving HSBC is the most egregious example. Along with processing millions of narco dollars, the bank failed to monitor $60 trillion of business conducted with sanctioned nations. That’s in addition to servicing a bank closely linked to Osama bin Laden.

Remarkably, Eric Holder rushed the investigation and let HSBC off the hook with a fine and no criminal charges. The Trump administration doesn’t appear to be any firmer on this type of crime.

Money laundering is an issue that tends to fly under the radars of most Americans. However, the size and scope of some of these cases seem impossible to believe. Look no further than the New York City skyline. Last year, a federal jury ruled that a 36-story skyscraper in Manhattan was a front for the Iranian government.

Via a U.S.-based shell company, Bank Melli, controlled by the Iranians, financed the building and rented it to Nike and Godiva Chocolate, among other high-end clients. It was originally constructed before sanctions were placed upon Iran. However, the anonymity of the true ownership allowed the Iranian government to skirt sanctions in a lucrative manner for several years.

Was this example an anomaly? Not necessarily. A New York Times investigation concluded that roughly half of the luxury real estate in the U.S. has been purchased by shell companies.

So while the recent revelations about Dubai’s real estate market are absolutely disturbing, the U.S. government first needs to address issues on its own soil for there to be real progress. It should also take a harder look at its relations with the UAE.

Brian Saady is a freelance writer who covers a variety of topics, such as foreign policy and corruption. He’s the author of four books, including his series, Rackets. It details the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. You can check out his podcast and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.