‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
The Emirates Hills are known as the “Beverly Hills of Dubai.”
It’s an exclusive housing estate where gleaming marble-clad villas, overlooking the perfectly manicured greens of a signature golf course, fetch up to US $52 million.
Most can only dream of such sunny, secure, and discreet retirement homes.
But a major leak of property and residency data compiled by real estate professionals in Dubai shows that while Emirates Hills is home to many successful people from the world of business, the estate is also favored by kleptocrats fleeing from justice – individuals linked to the looting of billions in state funds around the world.
An analysis by Finance Uncovered has identified a number of alleged politically exposed persons (PEPs) within the data, some of whom are linked to notorious corruption scandals. The leaks were obtained by C4ADS, who passed them onto the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Finance Uncovered.
Among them is Dan Etete, a former minister of petroleum in Nigeria and a convicted money launderer who is due to stand trial in Italy in connection with an allegedly corrupt oil deal known as OPL 245. (See: Dan Etete)
In 2011, his company, Malabu Oil and Gas, received more than US$ 800 million from the sale of an oil field to Royal Dutch Shell and the Italian energy giant, Eni. He had awarded the oil to his own company in 1998 during his time as oil minister.
As soon as the sale was completed, prosecutors say, Etete began an epic spending spree with money the current Nigerian government says belongs to the state. Investigators have spent years trying to trace the assets purchased with the proceeds, including a private jet and expensive works of art.
Analyzing the new leaks and other sources, Finance Uncovered has established that Etete was listed as living in a luxurious villa in Emirates Hills as early as 2015 – and that after he is accused of receiving the money from OPL 245, he transferred $105,000 to a Dubai furnishings company.
When contacted by Finance Uncovered, Etete did not respond to questions. He has previously denied all charges against him.
Another Emirates Hills resident is Khadem Al Qubaisi, an Emirati alleged by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to have received nearly $473 million diverted from the Malaysian investment fund 1MDB.
The DOJ alleges that a Luxembourg bank account controlled by Al Qubaisi received the money siphoned from a 1MDB bond offering.
The record for Al Qubaisi’s Emirates Hills property suggests it is valued at nearly $20 million.
Al Qubaisi was the managing director of IPIC, an Abu Dhabi investment fund, in 2012. In 2016, he was detained according to the Wall Street Journal in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
According to a Wall Street Journal article in May 2018, a lawyer for Al Qubaisi said his client, then still in jail, declined to be interviewed. Finance Uncovered has been unable to contact either Al Qubaisi or his lawyer.
Described as Dubai’s “most exclusive residential community,” Emirates Hills was launched in 1999 by Emaar Properties, which is 29.2 percent owned by the Government of Dubai’s investment arm, the Investment Corporation of Dubai.
In 2002, Sheikh Mohammed, now Dubai’s ruler, issued a decree allowing outsiders to own properties, instead of just leasing then, in certain developments — including Emirates Hills.
This liberalization heralded launch Dubai property boom between 2003 and 2008, when properties almost quadrupled in price.
The boom years have been called Dubai’s “buccaneer” period. Estate agents in Dubai only became subject to anti-money laundering rules in 2007, meaning that through the boom years they were not obliged to check the sources of their clients’ funds.
In addition, the 2007 regulations only applied to estate agents working out of the Dubai International Financial Centre. New rules introduced in 2014 apply to estate agents throughout the emirate.
Luxury developments such as Emirates Hills, which overlooks Address Montgomerie, a golf course designed by former Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, became popular with political elites.
The newly leaked data add further details to the already long list of PEPs who have chosen to live in its gated development.
The family of former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been reported to own a villa there. According to the leaked records, a company called Tempo Global Gains owns the property, which the data indicates has a net value of $2.9 million. Tempo Global Gains was reported to belong to Zardari’s late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, according to news reports.
Pakistan’s former finance minister Mohammed Ishaq Dar, who is accused by the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of possessing assets disproportionate to his declared sources of income, also owns a property in the Emirates hills. Ishaq Dar denies the NAB’s allegations, according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune.
Pakistan’s accountability court approved a NAB request to freeze his assets, including the Emirates Hills property, in 2017.
As reported in the Express Tribune, Ishaq Dar’s spokesperson has said that, though he made a down payment on the property in 2005, he since passed it to his sons, and has declared the property in all his relevant tax returns. The NAB’s case against Dar continues.
Emails from the Guptaleaks investigation in South Africa last year showed that Rajesh “Tony” Gupta negotiated the purchase of a villa in Emirates Hills for former President Jacob Zuma in 2015, according to South Africa’s Sunday Times.
The files suggested that Zuma and his family intended to relocate to the Emirates and use the villa as a second home.
The article in the Sunday Times last year described the opulence of the Zuma villa: “Zuma’s home is Villa L35 on Lailak Street in Emirates Hills, billed as the ‘most expensive postal code’ in a city so flashy that the police drive Bugattis.”
“The palatial home comes complete with 10 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, a double grand staircase, nine reception rooms and space for 11 cars.”
“The top-of-the-range fittings feature an excess of marble, mosaic and gold. The sparkling pool fringed with palm trees is larger than the ‘fire pool’ at Zuma’s Nkandla compound.”
The leaked Dubai files indicate that the villa, previously owned by a Lebanese businessman, was worth $13.3 million.
Nearby is the former villa of Grace Mugabe, wife of ousted Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe.
In a 2017 court case in Zimbabwe, businessman Jamal Ahmed alleged that Grace Mugabe used to rent a property at J11 Emirates Hills, according to the Zimbabwe NewsDay.
Sunday Times journalists were told by an estate agent that claimed to have arranged the sale that Mrs. Mugabe had bought the villa, but when interviewed in late 2017 Robert and Grace Mugabe told reporters that the property had already been sold.
According to the leaked data, J11 is owned by Dubai company Global International Trading FZE.
Finance Uncovered tried to contact the company, but did not receive a response. There is no suggestion it is or has been involved in any wrongdoing.
Other residents include former Thai prime minister and former Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra, who moved to the Emirates to avoid a 2008 jail sentence for corruption in his homeland.
He had previously skipped bail and fled to the UK, claiming he could not obtain a fair trial in Thailand.
He has given a number of press interviews from his gleaming white villa in the Emirates Hills, complete with marble staircase and luxury cars.
This story is part of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a collaboration started by OCCRP and Transparency International. For more information, click here.