Dubai offers one perk that fits nicely into its secret real estate market: easy visas.
The emirate has a resident population of 2.7 million, of which 91 percent are expatriates (though a large number are poor migrants rather than wealthy investors).
Whether by business or property investment, obtaining a residency visa is a no-frills process that protects investors’ assets from legal action by the government of their home country, even if they stole their first million there.
The property investment visa is perhaps the easiest to get: An investment of just 1 million dirhams (US$ 272,000) buys a residency visa renewable every two years and extendable to family members. With it come opportunities for legal and financial secrecy, ranging from corporate vehicles to banking services.
Another popular package is the business visa, obtainable either by starting a company or investing in an existing one. Either option comes with a residency permit. Developing a new entity costs anywhere between around $4,000 and $7,000. Alternatively, ready-made companies in one of Dubai’s free trade zones (about $15,000) are easy to acquire and hard to penetrate.
But for clients who want to remain below the regulatory radar, savvy agents advise purchasing shares of a functioning company with real management and professional activity, accompanied by established bank accounts that the buyers can take over.
Known as “share sell,” this combination of legitimacy and secrecy requires a transfer of funds, a passport, and approval from the UAE’s immigration agency and police — though investors can even have agents purchase shares in their names and hold them on their behalf.
Those who obtain residency visas through one of these methods can stash their cash in Dubai through investment in real or fictional companies or through their bank accounts, and little can be done to access this information.
These tactics make identifying illicit activity or people that much more difficult, even when foreign governments request information to build a legal case against a UAE resident.
To lure even more international investment, the UAE announced a new system last month that will grant 10-year residency visas for investors and specialists and allow 100 percent foreign ownership of UAE companies.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, explained last month that the new offer, which will reportedly go into effect later this year, will extend to investors, scientists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. “The UAE has always welcomed, and always will, innovators and business leaders,” he said.
Pursuing any of these investment options requires getting money into the country — and that means dealing with the banking system.
Shareholders or company directors can open as many bank accounts in the emirate as needed. Banks set up accounts quickly, taking merely two days if the client is physically present and the rigorous paperwork is in order.
But personal relationships help agents glide around the modest rules. Normally, clients must physically go to Dubai to open a bank account. However, if the client cannot be present, an agent with the right connections can open an account for that client in a bank in another jurisdiction that does not require a physical visit.
This story is part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a collaboration started by OCCRP and Transparency International. For more information, click here.