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How the UAE became an investment centre for Hezbollah, drug traffickers, the Palestinian Fatah movement, and Putin's friends

By Evgeny Dyatlov 
May 26, 2024

A joint international investigation shows how the United Arab Emirates has promoted foreign investment in real estate without asking too many difficult questions.

This loophole was used by terrorist organizations, drug traffickers, persons under international sanctions and people close to President Putin. The list of real estate investors in the UAE includes many Palestinians who bought real estate worth about $900 million, as well as dozens of Israelis, most of whom also have Russian citizenship.

An international investigation based on an leaked database on real estate ownership in the United Arab Emirates shows that about 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank own real estate in the country with a total value of about $500 billion. As of 2022, Palestinians own approximately 1,500 residential facilities in the UAE with an average cost of about $330,000 per facility. Further study of the data shows that the average investment of each Palestinian in the UAE is about $500,000.

These figures do not include commercial real estate, and according to real estate experts who have studied the information leak and other high-ranking officials in the country, the total value of Palestinian-owned real estate in the UAE can reach $900 million. It should be noted that in some cases the data may be distorted due to rented real estate.

The leak also contains information on real estate ownership for 2020. A comparison of the data shows that the number of Palestinians owning private real estate in the UAE has decreased slightly during this period, but the average value of each asset has increased. Some of the Palestinians on the list are relatives of famous businessmen, and there are also relatives of politicians from the Fateh movement.

The 2022 list also indicates that about 30 Israeli citizens also own real estate in the UAE. The analysis conducted by journalists shows that most of them are Russian citizens who also have Israeli citizenship; some of them have had problems with the law in the past, and others are wanted by the Moscow authorities. Another group of property owners in the UAE includes persons closely related to the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah.

The investigation, called "Dubai Unlocked", is a leak of real estate data obtained by the Washington non-governmental organization Center for Advanced Defense Studies, which shared information with the Norwegian economic newspaper E24 and the Organized Crime and Corruption Research Project (OCCRP), which in turn shared it with about 74 media in 54 countries. Shomrim is Israel's representative in the project.

Dubai Financial District. Photo: Reuters

Hezbollah, Putin's friends and drug traffickers

The United Arab Emirates is considered the preferred place for foreign investment, in part because investors benefit from low taxation. The UAE authorities do not conduct in-depth investigations into sources of financing for real estate investments, and if investors spend more than $545,000, they also receive resident status. According to the investigation, as of 2022, the total amount of money invested by foreigners in the UAE real estate market amounted to about $160 billion.

One of the most amazing discoveries made as a result of a data leak is that, despite the difficult relationship between the UAE and Hezbollah, a number of persons associated with the Lebanese terrorist organization have purchased real estate in the country. One of the most famous of them is Adham Hussein Tabaja, whom the U.S. State Department calls Hezbollah's financier. Tabaja is wanted by the United States, which has awarded him a $10 million reward. Another person associated with Hezbollah who owns real estate in the UAE is Mohammad Buzzy, a double citizen of Lebanon and Belgium, against whom the United States imposed sanctions back in 2019. He was arrested last year in Romania, and the American authorities sought his extradition for charges. in the United States.

Poster about the search for Hezbollah's senior fighter Adham Hussein Tabaji

According to the findings of the investigation, the UAE's tax policy also allowed criminals, drug traffickers and persons against whom global sanctions have been imposed to buy real estate in the country. Indeed, the list of real estate owners in the UAE also includes more than 100 politicians and statesmen from Russia, as well as businessmen with close ties with President Vladimir Putin.

Another interesting character who appeared on the list is Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. Although Isabel dos Santos is wanted by Interpol, she is accused of corruption and her assets are frozen, she owns luxury residential real estate in the UAE. Another person who owns real estate in the UAE is Daniel Keenahan, who is accused by the United States and Ireland of managing a violent drug cartel. Other persons who own assets in the UAE include people who have led one of the largest cryptocurrency scams ever disclosed in the United States.

Isabel dos Santos, daughter of a former dictator of Angola. Photo: Reuters 

Israelis also have dual citizenship

There are no Israelis in the list of property owners in the UAE for 2020, but the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which occurred at the end of 2020 after the signing of the Abrahamic agreements, allowed Israeli citizens to purchase real estate in the country. register it under their own name and even indicate their nationality as Israeli. What stands out in the list of 30 Israelis is a significant proportion of Russian immigrants among them, as well as the fact that some of them were involved in legal problems in their country of origin. One of the most unexpected names on the list is Viktor Khoroshavtsev, a former senator and representative of the Udmurt Republic in the Federation Council. Khoroshavtsev was a member of the same party as Putin, and about 20 years ago his name was associated with corruption scandals. Now he is the CEO of the Aspek Group of Companies, one of the largest holdings in the Udmurt Republic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters 

Another Israeli-Russian citizen with dual citizenship listed as the holder of assets in the UAE is Aaron Meir Ben-Haim, known in Russia as Andrey Shandalov, who together with his father owned Optima Group, one of the largest holding companies in Russia. In March 2023, the Russian authorities announced that Shandalov and his father were wanted on suspicion of tax evasion and $35 million fraud.

Another name on the list is Timur Rodionov, a Russian businessman working in Ukraine, who added him to the list of persons subject to sanctions.

Dubai with the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in the center. Photo: Reuters 

UAE in response: committed to efforts to combat money laundering

The UAE Embassy in the UK provided the following response to the findings of the investigation. "The United Aabes of the United Arm of the United Arm of the United St of the United World Financial System extremely seriously. In February, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), a global developer of anti-money-laundering standards, praised the significant progress of the UAE. Continuing to prosecute global criminals, the UAE is working closely with international partners to suppress and deter all forms of illegal financing. The UAE is determined to continue these efforts and actions more than ever, today and in the long term."