The Gulf city of Dubai has been slammed as a “money laundering paradise” by leading anti-corruption group Transparency International.
Dubai – one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE – has built a reputation as the pre-eminent business hub in the Middle East, with an open economy that welcomes companies and individuals from around the world. It is a city that has gained fame for giving supercars to its police and building palm-shaped islands in the sea. However, it has also garnered notoriety as a place where normal rules can at times be ignored or easily sidestepped.
In its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, anti-graft campaigning group Transparency International says that “Dubai has become an active global hub for money laundering … where the corrupt and other criminals can go to buy luxurious property with no restrictions.”
Citing investigations last year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Transparency International said that real estate worth millions of pounds can be bought in Dubai in exchange for cash with few questions ever asked.
In a report issued in June last year, C4ADS said it had identified 44 properties worth some $28.2m that were held directly by sanctioned individuals, and a further 37 properties worth almost $80m that were owned by members of these individuals’ wider networks. The data was based on a leaked database of property and residency data compiled by real estate professionals.
Clearly these issues are not new and indeed Transparency International has itself previously raised concerns about the dubious practices that go on in Dubai’s real estate market. Despite the negative publicity, however, the authorities appear reluctant to take decisive action.
Despite Dubai’s shortcomings, the UAE as a whole is actually the best rated country in the Middle East and North Africa region when it comes to corruption. In the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index it is ranked 23 out of 180 countries, with a score of 70 points, closely followed by its near neighbor – and regional rival – Qatar, which is ranked 33 overall, with 62 points.
The index scores countries on a scale from zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. The best rated country overall is Denmark with a score of 88 points.
While the UAE and Qatar score higher on the index than other countries in the region, this is largely due to their levels of economic and social development, says Transparency International. Both countries have relatively efficient public bureaucracies, high GDP levels and good health and education systems.
However, both countries also lack democratic institutions and a respect for political rights – something that is common throughout the Gulf and the wider MENA region – making them highly susceptible to corruption. “This leaves control of corruption up to the political will of the incumbent ruling class, which can change suddenly and leave any improvements in anti-corruption efforts behind,” says the Transparency International report.
There is also no freedom of the press in these countries and academics such as British research Matt Hedges have been actively targeted by the UAE authorities.
The opaque nature of the political and legal systems in the UAE can often prove frustrating for businesses. One prominent recent example is the battle over $496m in funds owned by a Kuwaiti investment firm – the money was frozen in a Dubai bank account in November 2017, but despite sustained lobbying of officials in Kuwait and the UAE it remains frozen at the time of writing.