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What Is ‘Dubai Unlocked’? Everything You Need To Know

  1. What is Dubai Unlocked?

  2. How is Dubai Unlocked different from other investigations?

  3. Why Is Dubai a hub for money laundering?

  4. Where does the Dubai property data come from?

  5. What’s in the property data?

  6. How has this data been verified? What do we know about it, and what do we not know?

  7. How did journalists choose who to investigate? What about privacy concerns?

  8. What has Dubai done to address money laundering in the real estate sector?

  9. How many media outlets participated in Dubai Unlocked?

1. What is Dubai Unlocked?

Dubai Unlocked is an international investigation into the owners of real estate in Dubai.

With its ritzy beach clubs, high-end shopping, and ultramodern skyline, the Gulf city is known as a playground for the world’s rich and famous.

But slippery regulations have also turned its property market into a magnet for another class of global elites: alleged criminals, fugitives, political figures, and sanctioned individuals seeking to stash their money abroad.

Dubai Unlocked, a collaboration involving more than 70 media outlets, reveals who owns what in the Middle Eastern financial hub, and how the city has opened its doors to hundreds of people accused of criminality around the globe.

2. How is Dubai Unlocked different from other investigations?

Dubai has for years been flagged as a major destination for laundering illicit cash, particularly through its real estate market.

While other investigations have focused on the property holdings of those from specific regions and countries, Dubai Unlocked is the first project of its kind to look at ownership in the city on a global scale. It is also based on more up-to-date data, thanks to a new set of leaked property records largely from 2022 and 2020.

Reporters have identified scores of Dubai property owners we believe it is in the public interest to write about, ranging from alleged money launderers and drug lords, to political figures accused of corruption and businessmen sanctioned for financing terrorism.

3. Why Is Dubai a hub for money laundering?

Dubai is not the only city where criminals and kleptocrats have been known to clean their cash through real estate. But experts say it has several points of appeal — particularly for those on the run from Western law enforcement or sanctions.

Until recently, the United Arab Emirates lacked extradition treaties with many countries, making it a go-to destination for fugitives from around the globe. While authorities have increased cooperation with foreign law enforcement in recent years, it is still known for inconsistent responses to extradition requests.

According to Radha Stirling, an attorney and human rights advocate who leads the legal assistance organization Detained in Dubai, UAE authorities use high-profile suspects as “bargaining chips.”

“Even if they claim to have arrested people or frozen their assets, these may just be for press release purposes,” she said.

Some of Dubai’s real estate agents have also cultivated a reputation for asking minimal questions about the origins of their clients’ funds. Until 2022, real estate agents, brokers, and lawyers were not obligated to report large cash or cryptocurrency transactions to authorities.

Finally, the city’s property market is one of the world’s hottest, providing a vast array of investment opportunities across its fast-changing skyline. With property values on the rise, real estate investments offer a way to not only launder illicit funds, but to make additional profits.

“The city’s policies have the second-order effect of ensuring that the assets of all these parties appreciate in value across time,” said Colin Powers, a senior fellow and chief editor for the Noria MENA Program, an independent non-profit research organization.

4. Where does the Dubai property data come from?

The property records at the heart of this project come from multiple data leaks, mostly from the Dubai Land Department, as well as publicly owned utility companies. Taken together, the data provides a detailed overview of hundreds of thousands of properties in Dubai and information about their ownership or usage, largely from 2020 and 2022.

The data was obtained by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that researches international crime and conflict. It was then shared with Norwegian financial outlet E24 and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which coordinated an investigative project with dozens of media outlets from around the world.

5. What’s in the property data?

The data includes the controlling party of each property, as well as other identifying information such as his or her date of birth, passport number, and nationality. In some cases the data captured renters instead of owners.

According to economists at The EU Tax Observatory and Norway’s Centre for Tax Research who analyzed the leaked data, foreign ownership in Dubai’s housing market was worth an estimated $160 billion in 2022.

For this project, we chose to highlight around 200 people, including alleged criminals, fugitives, political figures, and sanctioned individuals, who have owned more than 1,000 properties that we found in the data and subsequently verified.

6. How has this data been verified? What do we know about it, and what do we not know?

Journalists 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. Reporters have only included people in the project if their identities could be independently confirmed through other sources.

Dubai’s official land registry was also used to ascertain whether individuals appearing in the data remain property owners.

In some cases, reporters could not determine current ownership status, usually because a property had been recently sold. In those circumstances, extra efforts were made to confirm that the person had owned a property in Dubai, such as checking their passport information against a public government database of property owners.

7. How did journalists choose who to investigate? What about privacy concerns?

Reporters have only revealed the owners of Dubai properties in cases that serve the public interest. This includes property owners who have been convicted or accused of crimes, are facing sanctions, or are public officials or their associates, including those accused of corruption or who have kept their properties hidden from the public.

We have chosen not to write about celebrities or other private individuals who do not meet these criteria.

8. What has Dubai done to address money laundering in the real estate sector?

The UAE dealt a major reputational blow in March 2022 when it was flagged by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global anti-money laundering watchdog, for “deficiencies” in its systems to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

The move, which threatened to tarnish Dubai’s reputation as a premier center of finance, sparked a concerted effort by UAE authorities to tighten legislation and increase cooperation with foreign law enforcement on extradition.

According to UAE authorities, real estate agents, brokers, and corporate service providers have stepped up reporting of suspicious transactions, while the total value of fines imposed by anti-money laundering authorities has increased threefold since 2022.

But the number of reported transactions still represent a tiny fraction of deals made, and the reporting obligations for realtors currently only apply to sales, leaving the city’s rental activities as a black hole.

UAE officials — including at the ministries of interior, economy, and justice — and Dubai Police did not respond to detailed questions about the project’s findings, but the country’s embassies in the U.K. 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.”

“In its continuing pursuit of global criminals, the UAE works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance,” the statement added. “The UAE is committed to continuing these efforts and actions more than ever today and over the longer term.”

Journalists from 75 media outlets contributed to the project. Along with OCCRP and E24, they are:

  • Africa Uncensored
  • Age and Sydney Morning Herald
  • Al Jazeera
  • Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC)
  • BIRD
  • Buro Media
  • Civilnet
  • Context Investigative Reporting Project Romania
  • Cyprus Investigative Reporting Network
  • Dawn
  • De Groene Amsterdammer
  • De Tijd
  • Delfi
  • Der Spiegel
  • Der Standard
  • Diario Rombe
  • Direkt36
  • Economy Post
  • El Universal
  • Etilaat Roz
  • Expresso
  • Forbes
  • Frontier Myanmar
  • Frontstory.pl/Reporters Foundation
  • Government Accountability Project
  • InfoLibre
  • inside story
  • International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)
  • Investico
  • investigace.cz
  • Investigative center of Jan Kuciak
  • Investigative Reporting Lab – IRL
  • Irish Times
  • IrpiMedia
  • iStories
  • Knack
  • Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ) – Newstapa
  • KRIK
  • Le Monde
  • Le Soir
  • Lighthouse Reports
  • Malaysiakini
  • Malta Today
  • Mikroskop Media
  • Oštro
  • paper trail media
  • Rappler
  • Reporter.lu
  • Schemes, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service investigative project
  • Shomrim
  • Siena
  • Slidstvo.Info
  • Straits Times
  • SVT
  • Tempo
  • The Age
  • The Confluence Media
  • The News International Pakistan
  • The Nikkei
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • The Times
  • Times of Malta
  • Twala
  • VG
  • Vlast
  • Yle
  • Zamaneh Media
  • ZDF

Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

“24 saat”

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