“Dubai Uncovered”, a colossal report on money laundering and real estate in Dubai, has unveiled a vast network of ill-gotten gains held by Belgian criminals and sanctioned individuals.
The report is built upon data leaks first shared by US data-analysis NGO C4ADS in 2018. This has now been significantly expanded on by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and affiliated investigative journalists across the world.
The report reveals, among other incriminating evidence, a huge black hole in international anti-money laundering efforts centred around the Dubai real estate market.
World's most wanted party in Dubai
More than 100 members of Russia’s political elite and Kremlin officials hold property in the city. Heavily-sanctioned figures such as Russian businessman Ruslan Baisarov, close to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, and the first “prime minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Borodai are named in the investigation.
Other notorious persons of interest have also been implicated in the investigation: among them alleged Irish cocaine kingpin Daniel Kinahan and sanctioned crypto businessman Tibor Bokor.
Yet in Dubai, criminals appear in public, living lavish lifestyles with apparent impunity. Photos on social media show internationally-wanted criminal Miroslav Výboh, who owns a $2.7 million complex in Dubai, brushing shoulders with Formula One driver Charles Leclerc in a fancy Dubai restaurant.
Dubai has almost no extradition treaties, making it a hub for wanted criminals to invest money and escape justice, the report suggests. The city is on an international “grey” list of countries not doing enough to combat international money laundering.
Flemish newspaper De Tijd, one of the OCCRP’s member centres in Belgium, has contributed to the “Dubai Uncovered” report. With its unlimited access to the data, De Tijd was able to investigate the Belgian connection to Dubai's shady real estate market.
Belgian criminals live in luxury
Analysing the unpublished data, the newspaper has revealed worrying ties between the Belgian criminal underworld and the Dubai property market.
In total, 745 Belgians own a total of 1,511 properties in Dubai, according to analysis of the C4ADS data by the EU Tax Observatory. De Tijd’s analysis of the data has turned up other interesting discoveries.
In the majority of cases, properties in Dubai are legally held by ordinary private citizens, from Belgium’s successful and affluent business elite. In other cases, the assets are a lot more shady.
The most expensive property held by a Belgian, worth around $4.9 million and spanning a vast 1,245 square metres on the city’s iconic man-made Palm Jumeirah islands, is owned by a man convicted of money laundering in Belgium just a few years ago. This individual is reported to hold 9 properties in the city.
The largest Belgian owner of property in Dubai, who owns some 80 assets, is the son of a convicted fraudster. One Belgian, the owner of a bankrupt pizza shop, somehow now owns seven high-value Dubai residences, De Tijd notes.
The investigations show that the hospitable and luxurious coastal properties of Dubai are built upon a vast empire of European organised crime. This is largely paid for with blood and cocaine.
Almost one-third of Flemish partygoers have used cocaine, with 3% admitting to using it several times a week. In 2017, nearly 4,600 seizures of cocaine were reported in the cities and ports of Belgium. Belgium police registered around 58,000 drug-related crimes in 2018.
The international cocaine trade is hard to accurately measure. What is certain, however, is that Belgian drug lords are earning so much cash that they are looking to Dubai as a haven for their ill-gotten gains.
In total, Belgium’s anti-money laundering passed on 38 cases of suspected money laundering linked to Dubai to prosecutors in 2018-2020. The sum of the cases is worth around €480 million.
One Belgian cocaine trafficking couple is linked to 30 properties in Dubai, 8 villas and 22 flats, worth an estimated $18.7 million. The woman owns a $3 million five-bedroom villa on the shores of the world’s largest man-made lagoon; the man owns a flat a few minutes from a golf course designed by Tiger Woods.
“Undisturbed luxury”, De Tijd calls it, all financed by dodgy funds. “If you have money, Dubai is a very pleasant place to stay. For footballers, but also for drug criminals.”
Beyond the reach of the law
In 2021, the Belgian Federal Government signed an extradition treaty with the UAE. However, these documents are yet to be ratified by both governments. As a result, many wanted criminals find protection in the UAE.
Despite the lack of unifying agreements, the Belgian government is now pushing for the extradition of some of the most dangerous criminals.
In a comment to De Tijd, Edward Landtsheere, spokesperson for Belgian Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne, stated that certain extradition requests from the UAE will now be a priority.
“I cannot comment on specific cases,” Landtsheere said, “but most of them involve people who have made a lot of money from cocaine trafficking, at the expense of public health, and who have been able to get the Belgian government to pay for it.”
According to the Ministry of Justice spokesperson, there are even suspicions that some wanted suspects are conducting their activities from Dubai itself.
“Moreover, we have credible indications that these are persons who were involved in the ‘blind violence’ in Antwerp,” Landtsheere added.
This violence – a wave of narco-gang bombings, paramilitary-style attacks, and grenade attacks which has terrorised Antwerp locals since 2018. Antwerp is a key port and vital link in the international drug supply chain.
In 2021, Belgian police operation “Sky” cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, offering a fresh insight into the wave of attacks. €4.5 billion of the gangs’ illegal merchandise was seized and 888 suspects arrested. Investigators also revealed that many of the ringleaders of the attacks had fled abroad, notably to Dubai.
The latest “Dubai Uncovered” leaks may suggest that several of the Belgians listed in the data are individuals named by “Operation Sky.”
“These are persons who are principle suspects in the bombing of houses or throwing grenades in Antwerp city centre,” Landtsheere affirmed.
The documents reveal that some Belgians may also be committing tax fraud. Wealthy individuals flock from across the world to Dubai due to its zero rates on income and corporate tax.
There are 783 registered directors of Belgian companies and around 40 not-for-profits fiscally domiciled at an address in the UAE. According to De Tijd, these include companies active in the Belgium diamond, real estate, PR, IT, and food sectors.
Belgians domiciled abroad for tax purposes must have a physical address in the UAE. But often, this physical presence in the UAE is bogus, used to dodge taxes back in Belgium.
It is impossible to discern exactly how many Belgians have falsified a home address in Dubai. 3,600 Belgians live in the UAE, most in Dubai. Belgian taxpayers are obliged to declare their foreign assets and around 77 Belgians have already declared 116 properties in Dubai, mostly flats.
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This would not be the first time that Belgians have used the UAE to avoid paying taxes.
Following the release of C4ADS data in 2018, Belgian minor royal Prince Henri de Croÿ was revealed to have helped Belgian clients conceal millions of euros of assets in secret accounts created in the UAE and other countries. Around 50 Belgians concealed around €13 million per person.
In total, the OCCRP investigation revealed that Belgian companies made €265 billion in payments to Emirati companies last year, most of which, De Tijd states, were regular financial transactions and not fraud or ill-gotten funds.