Anti-Money Laundering Body Pledges to Probe OCCRP Findings on UAE

Published: 25 June 2024

Dubai view skylinesAerial view of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Ole Martin Wold)

By Selma Mhaoud, Eiliv Frich Flydal (E24), Sana Sbouai, Daiva Repeckaite

An international anti-money laundering body that took the United Arab Emirates off its “gray list” will review findings from a recent investigation by OCCRP and media partners, which revealed that convicted criminals, fugitives, and sanctioned individuals own property in Dubai.

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) took the UAE from its list of countries failing to take adequate measures against money laundering and terror financing in February. But the Dubai Unlocked investigation published in May has prompted questions about FATF's decision.

Now, FATF has said its experts will look into the journalistic investigation and take into consideration its findings when they again assess the UAE’s efforts to combat money laundering.

“They would look at the public information that is available,” FATF President Raja Kumar told OCCRP’s partner E24 in an interview. "What you have done on the investigative front would all be public information that they would have."

Journalists also revealed how real estate agents encourage clients to pay cash when they purchase property and ask little about the source of the money, contrary to FATF’s standards.

This, Kumar said, will also be considered in the upcoming evaluation.

"Lawyers, accountants, corporate service providers, real estate agents, all of them have to do their part to ensure that anti-money laundering and terrorism financing requirements are fully complied with," said Kumar.

"We will hold the UAE to account for the actions they have taken or have failed to take," he concluded.

Raja KumarRaja Kumar, President of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). (Photo: Kumar's press office)In 2020, FATF urged the UAE to “take urgent action to effectively stop the criminal financial flows that it attracts.” Finding the UAE’s efforts unsatisfactory, the task force put the country two years later on its gray list, which means increased monitoring of measures taken by the country to mitigate money laundering and terrorist financing.

But removed it this year, announcing that the country had made “significant progress,” including improvements in the ability to investigate and prosecute violators.

The move prompted a backlash from critics.

European Union parliamentarians argued that the Gulf state remains a global hub for money laundering. Suliman Baldo, director of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker, an anti-corruption organization, warned that money laundered in the UAE also fuels conflict.

"The removal of the UAE from the FATF gray list appears perplexing, given the reported evidence indicating that smuggled gold from Africa into Dubai is utilized to finance ongoing civil wars in Sudan as well as in other Sub-Saharan countries,” he told OCCRP in March.

Foreign Affairs reported that the Dubai emirate had “become a destination point for gold mined from RSF-controlled areas.” The RSF refers to the Rapid Support Forces, one of the groups involved in Sudan’s civil war, which the United Nations says has driven about 11 million people from their homes since April 2023.

FATF was aware of the problem in 2023 and noted in its report that one of the country’s “most dangerous sectors” was the “misuse of dealers in precious metals.”

In response to the findings of the Dubai Unlocked project, the UAE said through its embassies in the U.K. and Norway that it “takes its role in protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously.”

But Maíra Martini of the advocacy group Transparency International questioned why the UAE authorities had not acted before reporters published their revelations.

“Most of the cases uncovered by journalists are based on data available to the UAE authorities,” she said.

“I hope they (FATF) ask questions about failures by the UAE authorities in these cases,” Martini added.