Sunday, January 24, 2010
Fears are intensifying that the emirate has become a global centre for terror funding, money-laundering, drug money and mafia cash
Naresh Kumar Jain, an Indian multimillionaire suspected of being one of the world's biggest money launderers, ran from the law, but last month it became obvious that he couldn't hide.
Having skipped bail in Dubai – where much of his vast empire was based – 18 months ago, Jain was finally arrested in Delhi by India's Narcotic Controls Board for allegedly moving hundreds of millions of dollars for drug dealers. It had taken an international manhunt involving law enforcement agencies spanning three continents to catch him.
The 50-year-old is suspected by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency of being at the heart of a drug money-laundering network shifting up to £1.35bn a year across jurisdictions. Jain has reportedly admitted to Indian police that he has laundered cash, but denies being involved in the drugs trade.
However, investigators believe that his businesses are based on huge sums of cash originating in Africa and passed on to him by diamond smugglers and drug dealers – and that most of that illicit cash flows into Dubai. But the allegations against him do not make him unique in the emirate. "[Jain's arrest] was an important incident, but many wanted men reside in Dubai," says Dr Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf economics at the University of Durham.
To many, Jain is the latest, perhaps the biggest, example that proves the United Arab Emirates is not so much awash with vast oil wealth but built on a toxic tide of illicit cash: a place where Russian mafia and drug cartels clean their dirty cash and al‑Qaida finances terror atrocities. And at its heart is Dubai, a world financial centre that in the past 15 years has grown exponentially.
As Dubai's ruling elite pick through the wreckage of its bombed-out economy, which exploded under the weight of $60bn of debt last year, an equally pressing issue threatens to undermine not just Dubai but the UAE as a whole.
Next month, a meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the powerful intergovernmental body responsible for combating money laundering and the financing of terrorist networks, will meet in Abu Dhabi. The meeting is expected to establish which countries to put on a high-risk jurisdiction list following a request by G20 finance ministers last year. It is thought likely that the UAE will feature on the list. Such a development would be a serious blow to the money men of Dubai, but would confirm many people's fears that it remains a port of choice for dirty cash.
The notion is causing renewed concerns among senior US officials. Last month an American ambassador to Afghanistan, E Anthony Wayne, said that every day $10m in cash was being smuggled from Kabul to Dubai in briefcases, much of it from the Afghan heroin trade, which has boomed since the US invasion. Wayne said a US investigation found that $190m in cash was smuggled in just 18 sample days.
Insiders say that obtaining a UAE passport, which allows the bearer to open a bank account, is still relatively easy. Experts suggest that airport customs in some of the UAE states provide easy routes to move goods and cash around. In addition, Dubai real estate has a notorious reputation as a front for laundering, where apartments are bought up by unknown entities who never live there. "After 9/11, there was a crackdown on corruption, but they're careful not to talk about money-laundering because it is part of the lifeblood," says Davidson at the University of Durham.
"The place is built on it," insists one seasoned Dubai businessman. "It's a commercial port. There's a free trade zone. That's what made its livelihood."
Expatriate UK financiers say that new rules have not had any appreciable effect: "Russians are still coming with suitcases of cash to buy flats which they never live in," says one. "It's easy to get resident permits. These sort of stories are rife. Russia is the biggest source. A lot of it is mafia."
"There are weak links in every country," says Bryan Stirewalt, director of supervision at the Dubai Financial Services Authority. "There are weak links in the US, but they are different types. Money launderers choose the US because of [its] size… they don't stick out. There's an inherent conflict between the ease of doing business and the potential for money laundering. Unfortunately, they work contrary to each other. The easier it is to open a business, the easier it is for money launderers."
So easy, in fact, that the latest FATF evaluation of the UAE's efforts to combat financial crime is a devastating critique of its laws and agencies. The report, published in November 2008, points to the low number of suspicious transaction reports (STRs) submitted in a region where so much wealth is banked.
The FATF also criticises the low number of staff in the UAE central bank's anti-money laundering unit, as well as an inadequate legal framework that places few obligations on the region's authorities to ensure customer due diligence checks are made and monitored.
The task force also points out that standards vary on the identification of the true owners and beneficiaries of companies in the UAE, and expresses concern about the region's securities and insurance sectors, which adopt less onerous regulations than even its banking sector.
Alarmingly, regulations on wire transfers still "fall well short" of FATF requirements, the report says – an observation that will shock many, since six-figure sums were wired from Dubai to bank accounts in America to finance the 9/11 suicide bombers. The FATF also states that lawyers and accountants face no specific due diligence requirements under UAE money-laundering law.
To be fair, the FATF spares the Dubai International Finance Centre – the 110- acre Middle East and North Africa capital markets hub – from some of its fire. In fact, the Dubai Financial Services Authority, which regulates the centre, says that last year it posted a 20% rise in STRs, though it admits the overall number recorded was still not as high as might be expected. Much of the increase, it says, came in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bank collapse, when huge amounts of money came looking for new safe havens.
Stirewalt, who has been in charge of fighting money laundering and terrorism finance in the Dubai International Finance Centre for more than a year, has set up systems that are going a long way to identify illicit flows. As well as turning up a "significant" increase in STRs, he is focusing on accountants and lawyers, and has stepped up inspections of banks as well as improving links with the UAE Central Bank, which has overall control of money laundering issues.
Stirewalt points out that Dubai, which is close to a number of conflict zones, is vulnerable to criminal penetration, made easier because of its role as a port. He has still not completely come to terms with the region's long-established informal money-transfer network known as hawala, suggesting that reform in this area still has "further to go".
When it comes to claims that Dubai is a destination of Afghan heroin cash, Stirewalt is candid: "I don't disagree with it. I can't say it's not true."
He is keen to stress that Dubai is just one place through which dirty cash flows. When the emirate was cited as being part of an international £60bn carousel fraud five years ago, it was among a host of other countries including Switzerland and the UK. "We have to think about the whole globe," he says. "No one is perfect; no one is bulletproof. The UAE is taking the issue seriously post-9/11 to strengthen the system."
But it is not just Dubai's reputation that is at stake if the authorities fail: the apprehension of international crime and terror gangs depends on its ability to stem the tide of illicit cash washing through the emirates.For further reading:
"Underground Banker", Little India, January 9, 2010
"'Hawala King' Naresh Jain arrested in India", The Telegraph, December 9, 2009
"Suspected Hawala Kingpin Naresh Jain says he is being trapped", Thaindian News, September 25, 2009
"Anti-money laundering expert warns of dangers facing UAE financial services firms", AMEinfo.com, June 14, 2007
"Informal Value Transfer Systems Report", Nikos Passas, U.S. Department of Justice, January 2005