Summary: the UAE continues to insist it is cleaning up its act when it comes to money-laundering, gold and antiquities smuggling but lucrative criminal networks continue to flourish while key players remain unpunished.
Last December an Emirati national suspected of being a key figure in an international money laundering network responsible for moving tens of millions of pounds out of the UK was arrested by the National Crime Agency in London. NCA senior investigating officer Ian Truby stated at the time: “The man arrested today is suspected of having played a key role in the movement of tens of millions of pounds of criminal cash out of the UK, where it could be laundered to invest in further criminality.”
Truby went on to say: “The criminal network we allege he was involved in is one of the biggest of its kind we have investigated, paying couriers thousands to carry millions of pounds at a time rammed into suitcases. This type of activity is the lifeblood of organised crime, which cannot function without it.” The NCA allege the Emirati, Abdullah Mohammed Ali Bin Beyat Alfalasi from Dubai, organised travel arrangements for at least 26 couriers who between them removed an estimated £100 million in criminal cash from the UK to Dubai.
The arrest is remarkable because up until now Emirati money launderers have normally been allowed to get away with their crimes, as for example the infamous Turkish-Iranian money launderer Reza Zarrab who moved $20 billion to Iran between 2010 and 2015 through a UAE-based money laundering scheme and now lives freely in Miami.
But the arrest of Alfalasi is just the latest sign that Western governments will no longer tolerate the UAE’s budding status as the world’s dirty money launderette. It follows the April 2020 threat by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force that the UAE would be put on their so-called “grey list”, along with countries like Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe, if it did not tighten compliance in sectors vulnerable to abuse, especially gold trading and luxury real estate. The FATF final decision is due this month. And in March 2021 the US State Dept stated in an anti-narcotics strategy report:
“The UAE is a transshipment point for illegal narcotics and a pass-through for drug proceeds. Funds are laundered primarily through banks, MVTS (money or value transfer services,) dealers in precious metals and stones, and real estate. The numerous exchange houses, hawaladars, and general trading companies increase potential for bulk cash smuggling, TBML (trade based money laundering,) abuse of corporate structures, and the laundering of proceeds of foreign predicates.”
UAE authorities continue to insist they are serious about cleaning up their act.
“We took on board the recommendations and started to change,” Ahmed Al Sayegh, a minister of state in the UAE foreign ministry and part of the anti-money laundering task force, told the Financial Times [paywall] last month. “We think we have made significant progress — the bar has been set very high.”
But recent developments in an antiquities smuggling case in Egypt involving UAE diplomats is once again calling into question Abu Dhabi’s commitment to tackle organised crime inside the regime itself.
The case began last year when the well-known Egyptian businessman Hassan Rateb and former Egyptian MP Alaa Hassanein were arrested, along with 21 others, for antiquities trafficking and 227 artifacts from the Prehistoric, Pharaonic, Greek, Roman and Islamic eras were seized. In Egypt the media quickly dubbed it “The Great Antiquities Case.”
Hassan Rateb, 74, is the former owner of Al-Mehwar satellite channel and the owner of a group of investments in northern Sinai, including the Sinai University, the Sinai White Cement Factory, the Sama Sinai Investment Group, and the Sinai Development Foundation. The real reason he was arrested is reportedly because he refused to sell Sinai University to the government, but his alleged crime is providing millions of Egyptian pounds for illegal excavations organised by the former MP Hassanein and his brother to help them in illegal digging for antiquities.
As Arab Digest has reported previously the Egyptian regime has arrested numerous businessmen in recent months in what critics regard as part of a state capture programme by the military regime. The accused deny all the allegations. The case has been adjourned to February 12.
Among those named as being involved in the smuggling ring is the now former UAE Ambassador to Egypt, Hamad Saeed Al-Shamsi. He was deported from Egypt in December after the authorities “revealed his involvement in smuggling Egyptian antiquities with Emirati diplomatic bags.”
In the past Arab Digest has reported on how Arab diplomats and embassies play a key role in organised crime and exporting corruption around the world. Last year we reported on UAE diplomats smuggling gold in India as well as on the case of Thomas Barrack, a close friend of Donald Trump indicted in the US on charges including illegal lobbying on behalf of the UAE.
In both those cases the diplomats involved fled home before they could be questioned or charged. In this case Ambassador Al-Shamsi, who worked previously in the UAE security services and also served as ambassador to Australia and Lebanon, was deported.
On his official Facebook page Egyptian Ambassador to Qatar Amr El-Sherbini posted: “A correct decision confirms the vigilance of the Egyptian security and oversight services, and the good behavior of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by dealing with the matter professionally, and without arousing concern for relations with the UAE.”
He added: “This procedure must be complemented by a similar Emirati procedure that includes quickly punishing the ambassador who committed crimes against his country and the country that hosted him, with the return of antiquities that had previously been smuggled.”
Whether anyone in the UAE will actually face punishment for their role in The Great Antiquities Case is doubtful however, if history is anything to go by.
In 2018, in an unlikely turn of events Kim Kardashian inadvertently blew the top off an artifact trafficking ring running from Upper Egypt through the UAE to auction houses in the West after a photo taken of the star at the 2018 Met Gala standing next to a gold sarcophagus was widely shared on social media. A Middle Eastern informant who had been cut out of the proceeds of the smuggling deal contacted Manhattan’s Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos with information which lead subsequently to the identification of the sarcophagus as the looted gilded coffin of Nedjemankh, a Ptolemaic priest whose Minya tomb dated back to the first century BC. The informant revealed that the tomb was raided in 2011 during the chaos of the revolution and in 2013 the coffin smuggled out of Egypt to antiques dealer Hassan Fazeli, based in Sharjah. Fazeli wrote up an export form mislabelling the artefact as Greco-Roman in order to cover up the tomb’s real origins. The relic was then sold to Roben Dib, manager of the Dionysos Gallery in Hamburg, who allegedly faked an Egyptian export license saying the coffin had been legally exported in 1971. The coffin was then shipped to French antiquities scholar and dealer Christophe Kunicki and his colleague Richard Semper who sold it to the Met for USD$4 million. The gold-encrusted coffin was returned to Cairo in 2019.
Hassan Fazeli has a well-established track record for antiques smuggling. In 2008 he exported a limestone head of Assyrian King Sargon II worth $1,200,000 from the UAE to the US which in order to circumvent the Iraqi ban on trading in undocumented antiquities he declared was from Turkey and worth only $6,500. In 2011 Fazeli exported a 2000 year old statue of Persephone from Libya through the UAE to the UK, where it was held under bond by Connoisseur International until it was found by Customs in 2013 and subsequently returned to Libya. And in 2012 Fazeli exported a kudurru, an ancient Babylonian stone document, from Iraq via the UAE to the UK worth $70,000-$140,000 which he alleged was worth $330 and, yet again, claimed came from Turkey.
Kunicki and Semper were arrested in June 2020 and charged with fraud, money laundering and forgery. Their case has yet to go to trial, but the pair maintain they are innocent. Dib was arrested in August 2020 in Berlin. Sharjah-based Fazeli however appears to be trading normally again.