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UAE prince accused of helping Russian oligarchs evade sanctions

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the UAE, could face sanctions if found guilty of helping rich Russians park assets in the country
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pictured at a Manchester City football match, could find himself under investigation by British authorities (Reuters)

The billionaire deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, faces the prospect of an investigation over allegations that he helped wealthy Russian oligarchs evade sanctions. 

Sheikh Mansour, who also owns Manchester City Football Club, could be investigated by the British foreign office on charges that he helped former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and other Russian billionaires skirt sanctions implemented over their close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

At the instigation of a Ukrainian activist, international criminal lawyers Rhys Davies and Ben Keith have presented to the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, information that Sheikh Mansour is "central" to the flow of sanctioned money to the UAE. 

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The investigation, if the British government proceeds with it, will likely deepen scrutiny over the UAE's role in providing a haven to citizens of one of the world's most sanctioned countries. 

In their legal submission, the lawyers said that the UAE "is now widely perceived to be the destination of choice for sanctioned supporters of Putin".

The lawyers added that reports suggest Russian billionaires are "increasingly approaching Sheikh Mansour's office" to help shelter their ill-gotten gains.

The attempt by lawyers to push this investigation may strain relations between the two countries, which are generally considered close. 

According to reports submitted by the lawyers, more than 38 businessmen or officials linked to the Russian president own properties valued at more than $314m. 

The UK, which has been one of Ukraine's staunchest supporters, now faces having to investigate one of its closest regional allies. 

The lawyers have also asked the British government to look into whether Sheikh Mansour himself should be sanctioned over the allegations. 

Assets confiscated

Among assets sheltered in the UAE is Abramovich's Boeing 787 Dreamliner, worth around $350m, one of several private jets belonging to other oligarchs parked in the absolute monarchy. 

Since Russia began its war against Ukraine in February of this year, Russian oligarchs have seen hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of their assets confiscated by the West. 

A yacht worth an estimated $156m belonging to Andrei Skoch, a steel billionaire and member of the State Duma, has also been docked in Dubai. 

The sanctioned Russian fertiliser tycoon Andrey Melnichenko has also moored his $300m yacht in Dubai. 

In total, it's estimated that hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars' worth of Russian assets and cash have found their way to Dubai, bolstering the local economy but also drawing the attention of western governments looking to close sanction loopholes. 

Ordinary Russians escaping to Dubai

In March, Middle East Eye reported that increasingly desperate affluent Russians were looking to put their assets away from the clutches of the western sanctions regime. 

Dubai has become one of the main go-to destinations for Russian tech-savvy workers looking to expand or maintain their western clients. 

Many Russian banks have effectively been cut from the global economy, leaving ordinary Russians scrambling to pull their savings from banks and convert their roubles into foreign currency.

Russia has enacted capital controls to protect its reserves and banned citizens from leaving the country with more than $10,000 in foreign currency.

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Dubai has long styled itself as a haven in times of instability, and 90 percent of its population is made up of foreign nationals. In the past, it has attracted wealthy families and business owners fleeing regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

But it is Russians who may now draw the most attention. 

Russian speakers have always been a small but notable fixture of the glitzy oil-rich state. Today, they number roughly 100,000, of which 40,000 are Russian nationals and 15,000 are Ukrainian. 

There are service sector workers and IT professionals, but also those of more dubious character.

Events of the past few months appear to be turbocharging a trend that had been building for some time: the Kremlin's deepening ties with the UAE as part of its growing clout in the Middle East.

The strength of those relations has manifested itself in the number of Russian visitors showing up in Dubai, where in 2021 they made up the second-largest tourist market. Moreover, analysts say the bonds have become even stronger in the political sphere.

Hub for money laundering

report by the Carnegie Endowment in 2020 found that the wealth underpinning Dubai's prosperity was a "steady stream of illicit proceeds borne from corruption and crime".

Behind the facade of respectability that Dubai has carefully cultivated over the years, the flow of illicit funds "has helped to fuel the emirate's booming real estate market; enrich its bankers, moneychangers and business elites; and turn the city into a major gold trading hub", the authors of the report said.

"Corrupt and criminal actors from around the world operate through or from Dubai. Afghan warlords, Russian mobsters, Nigerian kleptocrats, European money launderers, Iranian sanctions-busters and East African gold smugglers, all find Dubai a conducive place to operate," said the report.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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