Skyscrapers soar in Dubai’s skyline. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold

Castles in the sand: politicians in Dubai leaks

A slew of elected officials and Politically Exposed Persons have invested in Dubai real estate.
Published May 15, 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.

As may be expected, several elected officials and Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) have a significant presence in the Dubai leaks, that cover property ownership up to the spring of 2022. Many are household names; some are no strangers to controversy; a few have been embroiled in mega financial scandals.

Surprisingly, however, there are some Pakistani families (both political and from the business world) who are widely known to have a base and family homes in Dubai, but are conspicuous by their absence in the property leaks. This underscores that the data, though robust, is neither a historic account of property ownership nor is it a complete picture of all properties bought by Pakistanis there. Many owners remain undetected, especially those who purchased property via a lesser-known third party, or lesser-known company.

Among the A-listers on the political landscape are President Zardari’s children, two of whom are elected representatives. Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari, a Dubai resident, and MNAs Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari are listed as owners of four properties between them.

A slew of elected officials and Politically Exposed Persons have invested in Dubai real estate

The three siblings are joint owners of two apartments, one in Al Saffa and another in Jumeirah. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has declared these two properties in his statement of assets and liabilities submitted to the ECP. (According to the Election Act, 2017, each year before Dec 31, every parliamentarian is required to submit a statement of their assets and liabilities as well as that of their spouse and dependent children as held on the last day of the preceding fiscal year.)

Ms Bakhtawar’s real estate portfolio also includes a four-bedroom penthouse in 23 Marina, an 88-storey residential skyscraper that is among the tallest such buildings in the world. Transaction data obtained by Norwegian financial outlet E24 and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reveals that the property was purchased in 2014 for AED 11,500,000 or $3,130,972 (calculated at the current exchange rate of AED3.6 to a dollar). The Dubai Land Department (DLD) system shows that it is still owned by Ms Bakhtawar, and is being rented. It should be noted that as a non-resident Ms Bakhtawar is not liable to be taxed in Pakistan on her overseas rental income.

The 23 Marina property in the leaks was mentioned in the JIT report of the ‘fake accounts’ case that pertained to 29 ‘suspicious’ accounts through which Rs35 billion was alleged to have been laundered. The report stated that Mr Zardari in a revised wealth statement to the FBR in January 2018 declared he had received it as a gift in the tax year 2014 and that he had gifted the same property onwards in tax year 2016. The report also claims a Karachi businessman, Abdul Ghani Majid, declared granting a gift of almost exactly the same amount in his wealth statement for tax year 2014. It alleges that he was a close associate of Mr Zardari. In the data, Mr Majid is listed as owner of a five-bedroom villa at Emirates Hills, purchased in 2014.

 This file photo shows skyscrapers and residential buildings, including the 23 Marina Tower in the distance, in Dubai Marina. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold
This file photo shows skyscrapers and residential buildings, including the 23 Marina Tower in the distance, in Dubai Marina. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold

It should be noted that in a 17-page response to the JIT report, Mr Zardari denied any wrongdoing. “The statements recorded by witnesses and the [accompanying] documents were not provided to us,” the reply stated. “The JIT is being used as a means of political victimisation.”

The OCCRP contacted President Zardari and his children with requests for comment. In a response through her lawyers, Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari said that all assets owned by her in Dubai have been “duly declared to the relevant authorities in Pakistan, including the ECP”.

In their response to Dawn’s questions, Mr Ghani’s lawyers said that their client had declared his property at Emirates Hills to the FBR.“ With reference to the allegations in the JIT report, they denied that Mr Ghani had ever owned the 23 Marina property and that “the question of gifting it, therefore, is incorrect and fallacious […]. [T]hat report has till date remained a fiction of JIT’s imagination, including and not limited to the allegations relating to this property”.

Surprisingly, there are some Pakistani families (both political and from the business world) who are widely known to have a base and family homes in Dubai, but are conspicuous by their absence in the property leaks. This underscores that the data, though robust, is neither a historic account of property ownership nor is it a complete picture of all properties bought by Pakistanis there. Many owners remain undetected.

More PEPs connected with the so-called ‘fake accounts case’ as laid out by the JIT show up as listed owners in the Dubai leaks. Among them are Ghulam Abbas Zardari and Hamid Samoo. Two properties are linked with his name in the Dubai leaks: a five-bedroom villa in Al-Furjan and a three-bedroom apartment in Palm Jumeirah. Both these properties also find a mention in the JIT report. Purchase and rental data obtained by E24 and OCCRP show that the villa was purchased in 2014 for $1.36 million and will have generated a rental income of $329,500 from 2015 till the current contract ends later this year. Dawn has verified that Mr Abbas still owns the Al-Furjan villa, while the apartment was sold some months ago.

Mr Samoo, meanwhile, is listed as owner of an apartment in the pricey Hadaeq Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid area in late 2019/ early 2020 which was bought for $1.89m and sold later that year. At present, he owns a two-bedroom apartment in Global Golf Residence 2. It is further alleged in the JIT report that he is employed as a driver and “has no other means of subsistence”. Neither Mr Abbas nor Mr Samoo responded to a request for comment.

Though the JIT allegations are yet to result in a conviction, the name of Haji Haroon, director at H&H Exchange Pvt Ltd and former president Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan, has cropped up as a vital cog in the wheel in some of the biggest dirty money investigations in the country. And there’s a long history. In September 2004, the State Bank suspended the licence of his exchange company for having allegedly attempted to export undeclared currency worth $1.72m from the country.

Among top five real estate investors

Appearing as listed owner of at least 250 properties in late 2019 and early 2020, Haji Haroon comes in the top five on the list of Pakistanis owning the most real estate in Dubai in that period; he purchased at least two villas in the emirate by early 2022. Among his investments was Silicon Heights, a nine-storey residential building completed in 2011. Each unit in this building sells for between $114,349 and $313,099. His other principal investment in Dubai in late 2019/ early 2020 was the 42-unit Building 13 in the Dunes Village apartment complex, where one unit is sold for an average price of $122,517. It is not confirmed what properties he owns at present.

Haji Haroon has figured in the Axact saga, which involved the selling of fake degrees and certifications across the world, although the allegations against him went nowhere. He does not appear on any global sanctions list. In July 2015, he was detained on charges of abetting political and business personalities in laundering their money to send abroad. Haji Haroon mysteriously disappeared that same year, reportedly at the hands of intelligence personnel, and resurfaced some 11 months later. No FIR was lodged over the disappearance. In 2018, investigations into the fake accounts case dredged up Haji Haroon’s name again. The FIA in its report alleged that he had used a UAE-based company for the transfer of funds. That case has still not come to a close. By all accounts, he continues to do a roaring business. Haji Haroon did not respond to a request for comments.

‘Underworld’s equivalent of Goldman Sachs’

In the history of money laundering, however, the massive hawala operation run by the Pakistan-based currency traders Khanani and Kalia International is considered the biggest of its kind: one news report described it as “the underworld’s equivalent of Goldman Sachs”. Moving illicit funds for organised crime groups including drug cartels and violent terrorist organisations raked in an estimated turnover of between $14 billion to $16bn annually. Altaf Khanani, the international face of the organisation, was ultimately convicted and spent nearly six years in a US prison; he was blacklisted by the US on money laundering charges along with his son Obaid Khanani and nephew Hozaifa Khanani. In Dubai, a country where, reportedly, investing in real estate with bags of cash raises few questions, the Khananis are listed owners of a massive real estate portfolio. Mr Obaid himself is linked to around 30 properties, while the family as a whole were listed owners of 85 properties in early 2020, including around a dozen villas. The exact number of properties still owned by Mr Khanani today is not known, but Dawn’s preliminary investigation shows that Khanani family members Mr Obaid, Anis Khanani and Abdul Qadir Khanani own at least seven.

Atif Abdul Aziz Polani was also deeply embroiled in the same money laundering operation. In fact, he was placed on the US sanctions list along with the Khanani men for having acted as an “agent” “acting for or on behalf of the Altaf Khanani organisation”. He is listed as the owner of eight Dubai properties, including four villas.

Industrialist and PPP MNA Mirza Ikhtiar Baig is listed as owning around two dozen properties, many of them jointly with his brother Ishtiaq Baig and spouse. Dawn verified that at least 15 of these properties, ranging from one- to three-bedroom apartments, are still listed as being owned by Mr Baig by early this year, according to the DLD. The purchase value for the still-owned properties ranges between $137,915 and $329,430. The two siblings are chairman and vice chairman of the Baig Group which bills itself as a multinational conglomerate with diversified interests in IT, textiles, power generation and real estate. In response to questions, Mr Baig said, “My company and properties… are declared in my tax returns and tax paid on the rental income.”

Million-dollar villa

The wife of Interior Minister and former caretaker chief minister Mohsin Raza Naqvi, is also listed as owner of a high-value property in the leaks. Data shows that, till the spring of 2022, Ms Ashraf owned a five-bedroom villa in the Arabian Ranches Palma community. According to the transaction data, the villa in the luxury estate was bought in 2017 for $1.18m and sold in 2023 for $1.23m. The DLD system still shows Ms Ashraf as an owner; however, it is not clear what properties she owns in the emirate, if any. In a statement, she acknowledged that she did indeed own the villa which she said was acquired through savings. Ms Ashraf added that it was sold in 2023 for the price mentioned above, and was declared in her tax returns. Interestingly, she confirmed that she still owns property in Dubai, and that the property was purchased in January 2024. In a response to questions sent by Dawn, Ms Ashraf said that the newly acquired property would be declared in the current tax year, as well as to the ECP.

Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon, one of the richest members of the provincial assembly with properties within and outside the country, and his wife appear in the leaks with five properties, with two belonging to him and three to his spouse. Ms Memon is still the owner of an office space in Burlington Tower (along with another individual) which she bought in 2018, as well as a four-bedroom villa in The Meadows bought in 2012 for $1.17m and worth between $2.5m and $3.5m today, but the third property, an apartment at Address Fountain Views in downtown Dubai, has since been sold. Mr Memon currently owns a three-bedroom apartment bought in 2015 that had generated a rental income of nearly a quarter million dollars ($245,036) until 2023. He also owns a one-bedroom apartment that was bought in 2014 and which has brought in rental income of at least $116,823. Mr Memon’s statement of assets for financial year 2020 declared his and his wife’s ownership of these properties.

 This file photo shows the Dubai skyline near Downtown Dubai. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold
This file photo shows the Dubai skyline near Downtown Dubai. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold

In his response to questions sent by Dawn, Mr Memon, said: “All our assets locally and internationally plus any incomes derived from such are duly declared as per the legal and regulatory frameworks applicable in Pakistan. …All properties listed and any income derived from these properties have been fully declared to the FBR. Taxes have been duly paid in accordance with the laws applicable to foreign income and asset ownership.”

Owais Muzaffar, better known as Tappi, and his spouse Ms Asif figure in the leaks as listed owners of two properties — one of which is among the most expensive owned by Pakistani nationals. Dawn has verified that Ms Asif currently owns a two-bedroom apartment in Vida Residences at Dubai Hills estate. Bought in 2015, its rental income from 2019 till 2024 amounts to $174,792. The couple also had joint ownership of a five-bedroom villa in the upscale Mohammed Bin Rashid District One neighbourhood until recently, but they appear to have sold it a few months ago. According to the transaction data, it was purchased for $3.17m in 2015 and sold for $5.58m in early 2024.

Hussain Nawaz, son of former premier and PML-N president Nawaz Sharif appears as a listed owner in the leaks. In response to questions sent by Dawn, Mr Nawaz confirmed that he owns “a very small one bedroom property in Dubai…[which] was bought as a personal investment in 2002/3 during exile days…. [for] AED 299,999.” He added that as an overseas Pakistani, he is exempt from filing tax returns.

PML-N MNA Ehsanul Haq Bajwa is unabashed about his wealth, and his X (formerly Twitter) bio reads: ‘By grace of Almighty richest parliamentarian of Pakistan, former MPA and current MNA from Bahwalnagar’. The statements of assets and liabilities filed by lawmakers with the ECP show him to be indeed the wealthiest parliamentarian with over Rs5.46 billion in assets, including Rs4.58 billion worth of assets abroad. He appears in the Dubai leaks data as a listed owner of dozens of properties in the 2020-2022 period. Dawn can confirm that as of early 2024, he still owns a villa in Nad al Sheba First which was purchased in Aug 2016 for $1.08m; a one-bedroom apartment in Emirates Gardens bought in April 2011 for $184,749; and two more one-bedroom apartments in Emirates Gardens bought the very next day for about $184,000 each. According to his statement of assets for the year 2020, Mr Bajwa declared nine properties in Dubai, purchased for a sum equal to Rs36.15bn. His business capital in Dubai amounts to Rs4.9bn and the total worth of his assets comes to over Rs4 billion, excluding liabilities in the UAE. Mr Bajwa did not respond to a request for comments.

In a stark reflection of the vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in Pakistan’s poorest province, former chief minister of Balochistan Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, his wife and daughter Izbal Zehri have invested a significant amount in Dubai’s luxury real estate sector. Sardar Zehri, who occupies a preeminent position in Balochistan’s tribal hierarchy, was elected MPA from his native Khuzdar district in the 2024 election while Ms Zehri was elected to the National Assembly on a reserved seat.

Residential skyscraper

The leaked data shows that his wife owned a double-storey, six-bedroom villa in the exclusive Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City — District One. Each residence here is said to overlook Crystal Lagoon, the largest such manmade feature in the world. The villa was purchased in 2018 for $4m and sold in 2023 for $6.2m; the rental income generated from it between 2019 to 2022 was a little over half a million dollars. Mr Sanaullah’s wife presently owns a three-bedroom apartment in the residential skyscraper 23 Marina, bought in 2020 for $383,882. The sardar and his daughter are owners of a couple of two-bedroom apartments in The Lofts Central project in the Burj Khalifa area. One was purchased in 2014 and the other during the following year. All told, the Zehris put down $1.5m for these two properties. Mr Sanaullah did not respond to a request for comments.

Another sardar from the same district, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, head of his own faction of the BNP, owns a one-bedroom apartment that he bought in 2009. The property has been rented out since at least 2013, and would be worth around $364,831 today. In his statement of assets for 2020, he declared it was gifted to him by an undisclosed individual.

According to a World Bank report of 2023, the poverty rate in Khuzdar district is 71.5 per cent.

In the property data leak, former PTI leader, Senator Faisal Vawda (spelt in the data as Fesal) appears linked with two properties. But as of January 2024, he owned a studio apartment bought in 2013 in Escan Marina Tower, Dubai Marina. Another property for which he is a listed owner, a unit in Atlantic Tower 1 bought in 2014, is owned by his daughter in the DLD system. In the leaked data, Ms Vawda is a listed owner of a second property for the 2020-2022 period but the property is not currently owned by her. Mr Vawda has declared his ownership of an apartment in Dubai’s Atlantic Tower, two units in a resort in Malaysia and multiple properties in the UK, including 19-20 Hyde Park Place, 292 Elgin Avenue and 177 Quadrangle Tower near Edgware Road. The value of these assets on the handwritten statement are mostly illegible. In response to questions, Mr Vawda said he and his family own several properties outside Pakistan, but that he does not know “which specific property” is in question. He added that his properties and income are declared with the tax authorities and that they are declared with his nomination papers.

 This file photo shows skyscrapers and residential buildings in Dubai Marina. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold
This file photo shows skyscrapers and residential buildings in Dubai Marina. — Photo by Ole Martin Wold

Two million-dollar apartment

Former prime minister and one-time finance minister Shaukat Aziz and his wife are listed owners of two properties in the leaks. DLD data shows that, as of September 2023, they still own one of these properties, a three-bedroom apartment in downtown Dubai’s Burj Vista Tower. Bought off-plan in 2013 for $1.33m, the property is worth around $2m today. Rental data obtained by E24 and OCCRP from 2019 till 2024 shows an income of nearly a quarter million dollars. The other property for which they are listed owners is located in luxury neighbourhood Lakes Hattan II. It was purchased in 2010 for $2.2m. It is not clear if the couple still owns it. Mr Aziz did not respond to a request for comments.

The family of property tycoon Malik Riaz, owner of Bahria Town Ltd, is well represented in the Dubai leaks. His wife Bina Riaz was listed as owner of dozens of one- and two-bedroom apartments in the HDS Sunstar building in the Al Warsan area in late 2019/early 2020. These have since been sold. Ms Riaz is also a director in Bahria Town, which was found by the Supreme Court in 2018 to have illegally acquired thousands of acres of land in Karachi. The court ordered NAB to investigate and initiate legal proceedings against those involved in the mega scam. In its findings, NAB accused 34 people, Ms Riaz, her son Ahmed Ali Riaz and son-in-law Zain Malik among them, as being culpable. However, the bench set up to implement the 2018 apex court verdict ordered that no reference be filed against the suspects “for the time being”. It also ordered Bahria to pay Rs460bn — nearly $3bn at the time — in instalments as land dues for 16,896 acres on which to develop its Karachi project. In November 2023, the SC found Bahria to be in default of its payment schedule.

Ahmed Ali Riaz and Zain Malik both appear as listed owners of Dubai real estate from the 2020 period. Mr Ali Riaz owns at least seven properties currently, mainly shops and office spaces. His two minor daughters own two properties in Jumeirah Park at present and his sister Pashmina Malik one, a residential unit in Dubai Sports City that appears to have been purchased in 2015. Neither Mr Ali Riaz nor Ms Bina Riaz responded to a request for comments.

Son of retired Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, Saad Siddique Bajwa’s name appears in the leaks connected to a property in Dubai. In a detailed response shared with a media partner in the collaboration, Ali Iqbal Bajwa confirmed he is the owner of an apartment in Building 5, City Walk, Dubai and that the apartment is currently mortgaged.

“The apartment was initially purchased, via a mortgage with Mashreq Bank Dubai, by my brother Saad Siddique Bajwa in February 2020. In December 2020, this apartment was transferred to me and since then I have been occupying it.”

He added that the property was declared in his brother’s tax returns with FBR in 2019-20, and since the property was transferred to his name in the second half of 2020, he has been declaring it in his tax returns with FBR from 2020-21 onwards.

Other prominent individuals whose names appear in the leaks include former Balochistan chief minister Sardar Aslam Raisani, MNA Amer Ali Magsi, MPA Sheikh M Mugheri, Farhat Shahzadi aka Farah Gogi, former MPA Sardar Khan Chandio, former minister Marvi Memon, Lt Gen (retd) Muhammad Afzal Muzaffar (NLC scandal), IG police AJK Tajik Sohail Aziz and media house owner Salman Iqbal.

Additional reporting by Iftikhar A. Khan.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2024

Header photo by Ole Martin Wold

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