Image by OCCRP

Global players feature in Dubai property leaks

Indians rank top among foreign owners with 35,000 properties estimated at $17 billion as of 2022.
Published May 14, 2024

Note: A mere mention in the data is not evidence in itself of financial crime or tax fraud. Nor does the data contain information such as residence status, sources of income, tax declarations of rental income or capital gains. Names of properties linked to senior political or military officials have been mentioned in the public interest.

After a six-month investigation led by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Norwegian outlet E24, reporters from 74 partners in 58 countries uncovered scores of convicted criminals, fugitives, political figures accused of corruption or their associates, and sanctioned individuals who have recently owned at least one piece of real estate in Dubai.

According to the leak of 2022 data assessed by economists and reporters, the number of residential properties owned by foreigners put Indians first, at 35,000 properties and 29,700 owners. The total value of these properties is estimated at $17 billion that same year.

Owners with Pakistani nationality come second among foreigners at 17,000 owners of 23,000 residential properties.

UK citizens in the 2022 sample own 22,000 residential properties and 19,500 owners, valued at $10bn, whereas Saudi nationals are listed with 16,000 properties and 8,500 owners, valued at $8.5bn.

Dubai’s international appeal

From the 37th floor of Dubai’s tallest skyscraper, the wife of an alleged Bosnian cartel member posted video after video on TikTok of the couple’s sleek rental apartment, often featuring their grey cat.

The images provided just enough clues for reporters to identify the apartment’s precise location in the city’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper — and the fact that it belonged to another target of law enforcement: Candido Nsue Okomo, the former head of Equatorial Guinea’s scandal-plagued national oil company, who is under investigation for money laundering in Spain. Okomo is also the brother-in-law of long-term President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose family is accused by French prosecutors of looting the African country’s public resources, which are heavily reliant on oil revenues.

It’s unclear whether the tenant, Dženis Kadrić, and his landlord Okomo knew of each other’s alleged misdeeds. But their convergence in a lease agreement is emblematic of modern-day Dubai, where secrecy and years of permissive policies have left its property rolls riddled with disreputable owners.

In the case of Okomo’s high-rise apartment, reporters from OCCRP’s Serbian partner KRIK first used TikTok videos to link the unit to the Kadrić, a former policeman who was arrested in Bosnia in February on suspicion of participation in organised crime, drug smuggling, and money laundering. He was released in May but remains under investigation.

Geolocation specialists from the investigative outlet Bellingcat then used the videos to identify the specific apartment. Okomo’s ownership was confirmed by a 2023 rental contract and his listing in a tranche of leaked property data.

Not far from Okomo’s Burj Khalifa property is an apartment in the Burj Lake Hotel owned by Shwan Mohammad Almulla, an Iraqi-born British national who was indicted in the US in 2021 over a bribery scheme to obtain millions in reconstruction contracts for Iraq.

Down the coast at the Grandeur Residences, a building on Dubai’s palm-shaped artificial archipelago, is a unit belonging to Joseph Johannes Leijdekkers, a 32-year-old also known as ‘Chubby Jos’ who is on the European Union’s Most Wanted List for alleged narcotics trafficking.

And in the nearby Palm Tower Dubai, sits a flat owned by Danilo Vunjao Santana Gouveia, a Brazilian businessman who goes by Dubaiano. Indicted on charges of money laundering and fraud for allegedly running a massive Bitcoin pyramid scheme in his home country, he has since taken up a career as a musician in Dubai, which he details on an Instagram account alongside photographs of him posing in front of various locations in the city, including the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah skyscraper.

 This file photo shows the Palm Jumeirah and the luxury resort Atlantis The Palm. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold
This file photo shows the Palm Jumeirah and the luxury resort Atlantis The Palm. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold

These and numerous other property owners verified by OCCRP and its partners should have immediately raised red flags under any basic risk assessment. Yet none of the individuals were apparently prevented from buying properties in their own names. (Kadrić, Okomo, Almulla, Leijdekkers, and Santana Gouveia did not respond to requests for comment.)

Reporters used the data as a starting point to explore the landscape of foreign property ownership in Dubai. They spent months verifying the identities of the people who appeared in the leaked data, as well as confirming their ownership status, using official records, open-source research, and other leaked datasets.

From Australian cocaine traffickers to the relatives of West African dictators and a coterie of sanctioned Hezbollah financiers, the findings reveal how the city has opened its arms to unscrupulous characters from around the globe.

“Corrupt actors and politically exposed individuals avoiding public accountability use secrecy jurisdictions like the UAE to hide assets in plain sight,” said Maria Giuditta Borselli, a portfolio manager at C4ADS.

UAE officials — including at the ministries of interior, economy, and justice — and Dubai Police did not respond to detailed questions, but the country’s embassies in the UK and Norway sent a brief response to reporters, saying that the country “takes its role in protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously”.

Today, Dubai is a global financial hub that boasts one of the world’s most recognisable skylines — a futuristic steel jungle where business leaders ink billions of dollars in deals, influencers model an existence draped in luxury, and Tom Cruise scales the world’s tallest building for a blockbuster film franchise.

The Gulf city is far from the only place where criminals and others have successfully stashed their wealth in luxury properties. New York City and London real estate have also been known to attract dirty money.

But experts say Dubai has a lot to offer, and not just in terms of its vast array of high-end skyscrapers and villas.

One pull factor, experts say, has been the emirate’s inconsistent responses to requests from foreign authorities for help arresting and extraditing fugitives.

Until recently, the UAE lacked extradition treaties with many countries, helping turn Dubai into a magnet for fugitives from around the globe. While UAE authorities have increased cooperation with foreign law enforcement in recent years, the government is still known for inconsistent responses to extradition requests.

The India-born Gupta brothers, who are accused of looting South Africa’s public funds through their close links with the country’s former President Jacob Zuma, offer a recent example.

Despite an extradition treaty between the two nations, last year the UAE quietly dismissed South Africa’s request to extradite Atul and Rajesh Gupta, who face charges of money laundering and fraud. The move shocked South Africa, where authorities have said the UAE failed to provide “satisfactory responses” on the reasons behind the rejection.

A UAE official did not reply to specific questions about the Guptas, but said it “works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance.” The Guptas and Zuma did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked about the country’s record on extraditions, Sauod Abdulaziz Almutawa, the head of Dubai Police’s financial crime centre stressed the recent arrests of those with red notices and said that extradition requests, which must pass through local courts, take longer to process and often face challenges from deep-pocketed defence teams.

“We are increasing our capacity, increasing and developing our resources … to meet the expectations of our foreign counterparts,” he added in an interview with Swedish Television (SVT) in March.

This is part of a series of articles on Dubai Unlocked.

Header image by OCCRP