Dubai Leaks: Was Nigeria’s OPL245 oil cash laundered in secretive Emirate?

By Margot Gibbs and Lionel Faull

A leak of private property data in Dubai has shed new light on how the proceeds of a notorious $1.3 billion oil deal involving Shell may have been spent on luxury villas in the secretive Arab Emirate.

Finance Uncovered has discovered the name of former Nigerian oil minister Daniel Etete among thousands of property and residency records compiled by assorted real estate professionals in Dubai. The leak was obtained by the US non-profit C4ADS, passed to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and seen by Finance Uncovered.

Etete was the suspected mastermind behind a 2011 deal known as OPL245 that is alleged to be one of the most corrupt in the history of the oil industry.

Etete, as well as oil giants Shell and Eni of Italy, and a number of their former executives, are due to stand trial on various corruption charges relating to OPL245 in Italy on June 20.

It is said to be one of the biggest trials in corporate history.

All the accused deny wrongdoing.

Investigators have spent seven years trying to trace where hundreds of millions of dollars have been stashed.


But in a new twist, Finance Uncovered has found evidence suggesting that Etete may have bought two luxury properties in Dubai after he received more than $800 million from the deal he made with Shell and Eni.

One property is in the exclusive Emirates Hills, known as the “Beverly Hills of Dubai” – the postcode of choice for a host of notorious former presidents, including Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace.

The link to OPL245 was established by an email address found in the property records and that was also in other files seen by Finance Uncovered in a separate investigation into Etete last year.

A business associate of Etete in Dubai also told Finance Uncovered that the former minister had brought millions into the Emirate via an informal money changer.

Etete (left) did not respond to our questions about his property purchases.

Barnaby Pace, an anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness, said: “We know that the criminal and corrupt set up bolt-holes around the world in which to stash their dirty cash, with Dubai being a favoured spot for many.

“New agreements between Nigeria and the UAE to work together to track criminal suspects and their assets go into effect this month. This should be a test case to show whether Nigerian and UAE authorities can act quickly to ensure corruptly obtained assets are recovered for the benefit of the Nigerian people.”

The OPL245 backstory

As oil minister in the last weeks of the corrupt Abacha military regime in 1998, Etete awarded the prospecting rights to the huge OPL 245 block to Malabu Oil and Gas, a shell company in which he secretly held a major stake.

After years of acrimonious legal wrangling over its ownership, Shell and Eni jointly agreed to buy the block from Malabu for $1.3 billion in April 2011.

The deal was structured so that Shell and Eni would pay the money to the Nigerian government which would then pay $1.1 billion to Malabu.

A long-running investigation by an Italian prosecutor unearthed sufficient evidence for a Milanese judge last year to order the criminal trial of several senior former Eni and Shell executives, plus a host of intermediaries, including former MI6 spies who had been working for Shell, a former Russian diplomat and Etete himself.

The Italian prosecutor alleges the deal was corrupt and that various oilmen, fixers and Nigerian government ministers received tens of millions of dollars in personal kickbacks.

Of the $1.1 billion, Malabu initially received $801.5 million, paid out by the London branch of JP Morgan Chase Bank to two Nigerian bank accounts in August 2011.

Documents seen by Finance Uncovered show that a month later Malabu transferred $336.5 million of this to a Nigerian bank account of a company called Rocky Top Resources Limited.

Rocky Top Resources Ltd is a Nigerian-incorporated company.

These documents also show that Chief D L Etete – an alias of the former minister – issued regular written payment instructions to the bank.

Etete splashes the cash

Etete immediately launched into an epic spending spree, according to a cache of OPL245 documents obtained separately by Finance Uncovered last year.

The papers included research from confidential documents from the FBI, which found that Rocky Top Resources made a $54 million payment towards a Bombardier private jet on the same day funds from Malabu were received.

Over the next 18 months, some $34 million would also flow from Rocky Top’s account in Nigeria to various companies and individuals in the United Arab Emirates.

The bulk of this money – $21.5 million – flowed at Etete’s prompting in regular, substantial dollops to a single UAE-registered company, Gunes General Trading LLC.

In May 2012, Etete wrote to the bank handling his Rocky Top account (see document, right) to inform it he would be out of contact for the next fortnight, and that payment confirmation for the sum of $6 million to Gunes General Trading be sent to an email address for a P. Ghaderi.

This email address exactly matches the contact email in the property database obtained by the OCCRP for Dauzia Etete, the owner of an apartment in the Palm Jumeirah’s Marina Residences (Dauzia is Etete’s formal Nigerian first name).

Finance Uncovered also called a UAE mobile listed for the apartment in the leaked property data. It was answered by a man who confirmed he was Ghaderi, and that Etete owned the property.

Ghaderi said he fell out with Etete several years ago but was vague about their precise business relationship.

The Dubai data does not reveal when Etete bought the property but Ghaderi said it was after the OPL245 deal.

Nor does the data disclose how much Etete paid for the property, but other apartments in the same block sell for at least $550,000.

That Etete was using some of the proceeds of OPL 245 to pay for Dubai property is also supported by a cluster of other payments Rocky Top made to Dubai in late 2012.

Rocky Top’s bank statements show it paid more than $100,000 to a Dubai home furnishings company, and a $5,284 payment to a Dubai real estate management agency on the same day in December 2012.

A final $1 million payment flowed from Rocky Top to Gunes General Trading a week later.

The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai (Shutterstock)

Ghaderi said that Gunes had been one of Dubai’s many thriving informal money exchange businesses but had left the Emirate recently because the government had started taxing the sector. The US government has cited Gunes separately for handling a $1 million payment in 2013 which violated sanctions against Iran.

Using an Arabic metaphor, Ghaderi said that Etete’s purchase of the Dubai Marina property was “just the ear of the camel” – but would not elaborate further.

The Dubai property leak also shows that as of 2015 a Dauzia Loya Etete owned a mansion in the exclusive Emirates Hills, known as “the Beverley Hills of Dubai” (Loya is Etete’s formal middle name).

The contact for this property is a personal email address for Etete that appears often in the OPL245 investigation documents seen by Finance Uncovered. The email is still active. When Finance Uncovered sent detailed questions to it for this story, the brief response elicited could be traced to an IP address in Dubai.

View from Emirates Hills, Dubai (via Flickr)

The mansion shares the Emirates Hills estate with the prestigious Address Montgomerie golf complex, designed by Scotland’s former Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie.

Billed as the most expensive postal code in the city, other Emirates Hills residents have reportedly included members of the Mugabe, Shinawatra, Bhutto and Gupta families (leaked emails from the #GuptaLeaks last year revealed that the Gupta property was at one point intended for the use of former South African president Jacob Zuma).

The property data indicates that Etete’s mansion was worth a “net amount” of $3.4 million. It is unclear from the data whether this is the amount Etete paid for the property.

Asking prices in the area currently range between $5.5 million and $22 million.

The OPL245 trial in Milan is due to start on June 20.

Shell has said it “does not believe there is a basis to convict Shell … [and] is not aware of any evidence to convict any former or current Shell employee”.

Eni has also expressed “total confidence” that neither it or its staff were involved in illegal dealings.

A spokesperson for the Dubai Land Department said: “All processes and activities carried out by the Dubai Land Department 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