By Lionel Faull and Margot Gibbs
It is known as the ‘Beverly Hills of Dubai’, an exclusive housing estate whose gleaming marble-clad villas overlooking the perfectly manicured greens of a signature golf course fetch up to $52 million each.
They are the sunny, secure and very discreet retirement homes that most can only dream of.
But a major leak of estate agents’ data in Dubai shows that while Emirates Hills is home to many successful people from the world of business, it is also a favourite for kleptocrats fleeing from justice – individuals linked to the looting of billions in state funds worldwide.
An analysis of the Dubai leaks by Finance Uncovered has identified a number of alleged politically exposed persons (PEPs), some linked to notorious corruption scandals. The leaks were provided by the American non-profit organisation C4ADS, which passed them to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
The former Nigerian oil minister
Among them is Dan Etete (pictured), a former minister of petroleum in Nigeria and a convicted money launderer who is currently due to stand trial in Italy over an allegedly corrupt oil deal known as OPL245.
In 2011 his company, Malabu Oil and Gas, received $800m as proceeds from the sale of an oil block to Shell and Italian giant Eni. As oil minister in 1998, he had awarded the oil block to his own company.
As soon as the sale completed, Etete, prosecutors say, began an epic spending spree with money the current Nigerian government says belongs to its people.
Investigators have spent years trying to trace assets he bought with the proceeds, including a private jet and artworks.
But thanks to the new leaks and by using other sources, Finance Uncovered has established that Etete was listed as living in a luxury villa in Emirates Hills as 2015 – and that after receiving the money from OPL245, he also 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.
The Malaysian link
Another Emirates Hills resident is Khadem Al Qubaisi, an Emirati who is alleged by the US Department of Justice to have received nearly $473 million diverted from Malaysian investment fund 1MDB.
The DoJ alleges that a Luxembourg bank account beneficially owned by Al Qubaisi received the money siphoned from a 1MDB bond offering.
The record for Al Qubaisi’s Emirates Hills property suggests it is among the most expensive, with a valuation of around $20 million.
Mr Al Qubaisi was the managing director of the Abu Dhabi investment fund IPIC in 2012. He was reportedly detained in the United Arab Emirates in 2016 pending trial.
According to a Wall Street Journal article in May 2018, a lawyer for Mr Al Qubaisi said his client, then still in jail, declined to be interviewed. Finance Uncovered has been unable to contact him or his lawyer.
Described as Dubai’s “most exclusive residential community”, Emirates Hills was launched in 1998 by Emaar Properties, which is 29.2% owned by the Government of Dubai’s investment arm, the Investment Corporation of Dubai.
In 2002, Sheikh Mohammed, now Dubai’s ruler, announced that outsiders could buy freeholds in certain developments, including Emirates Hills.
This liberalisation heralded the start of the Dubai property boom which lasted between 2003 and 2008.
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 make checks on their clients’ sources of funds.
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 The Address Montgomerie, a golf course designed by Scottish former Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, became popular with political elites.
The Dubai leaks revelations have added to an 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 in the development. The leaked records state that the property is owned by Tempo Global Gains, 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.
Ishaq Dar denies the NAB’s allegations.
Pakistan’s accountability court approved a NAB request to freeze his assets, including the property in Emirates Hills, in 2017.
His spokesperson has stated that though he paid a downpayment in 2005 he since passed the property to his sons, and that he 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.
The files suggested that Zuma and his family intended to relocate to the Emirates and use the villa as their second home.
An article in South Africa’s Sunday Times last year described the opulence of the Zuma villa (pictured below).
It said: “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. Zuma has denied the villa was or is intended for his occupation.
Near villa L35 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.
According to the leaked data, J11 is owned by Dubai company Global International Trading FZE, which is understood to be a property developer.
Finance Uncovered was unable to contact the company and there is no suggestion it is or has been involved in any wrongdoing.
Other Emirates Hills’ residents include former Thai prime minister and 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 that the ruling was politically motivated and he would not face 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 garage of luxury cars.
A spokesperson for the Dubai Land Department said: “All processes and activities carried out by the Dubai Land Department (DLD) comply with legislative and regulatory policies and laws in force in Dubai and the UAE, which are in line with international regulations.”
* Editing by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason