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Desert - sand dunes

The Middle East’s meeting place for crime

By John Coyne

The United Arab Emirate’s low crime rates for offences ranging from pickpocketing to murder are the envy of most western countries. And the government’s continued investment in law enforcement ensures that it has the police to prevent this from changing anytime soon.

But over the last decade, despite these investments, a dark criminal cloud has descended on Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

For a long time, international criminals and terrorists have abused the UAE’s economic freedoms to launder their proceeds of crime. Over the last two decades, Dubai and Abu Dhabi gained reputations in international law enforcement circles as global money laundering hot spots.

With the introduction of new laws and legislation in 2014, the UAE government began a shock and awe campaign against financial crime in earnest. Since then, there’s been plenty of action, and plenty of arrests.

Last year, Abu Dhabi’s Attorney General Ali Mohammad Abdullah Al Beloushi referred 54 men to the courts for their involvement in a single money laundering conspiracy. The regulators have also been busy. In June of this year, the Central Bank downgraded the licenses of seven exchange houses for anti-money laundering violations.

Publicly, the government is sending a clear message to those committing financial crime: ‘we’re coming for you’.

While this is all good news, a previously unrecognised crime problem is now emerging in the Emirates. Some of the globe’s most notorious international criminals are using it to lay low after committing crime, while other criminals are using it as a meeting place from which to plan and direct their next moves.

Last year, a joint Dutch, Australian, and Dubai police operation revealed how notorious Australian criminals had travelled to the UAE to meet with criminal associates. This group had been involved in the smuggling of 1.9 tonnes of narcotics into Australia. While on this occasion the group were arrested, plenty of other similar meetings continue to occur in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Earlier this year Australian authorities prevented another alleged organised crime figure from fleeing to Abu Dhabi. The man in question had been implicated in the attempted murder of a second Australian underworld figure.

In one case, a senior figure from an Australian motorcycle gang permanently resides in Dubai – and is allegedly still involved in criminal activities. Dubai authorities are unable to do anything about this man, as he has committed no criminal offence in the UAE and has no prior convictions.

Far too many senior organised crime figures from western countries, like Australia, believe that the UAE offers them a degree of anonymity and safety. And for the moment this belief is well founded.

This year the problem was exacerbated by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations suspension of the requirement for visa applicants to obtain good conduct certificates.

If the UAE’s police are going to be able to do anything about these criminals, then legislative change is needed. One possible avenue for addressing this problem is the re-introduction of a ‘character test’ for non-citizens and visa applicants seeking to enter and stay in the UAE. This character test should include obtaining records of the criminal histories of those wanting to enter and reside in the UAE.

While there are plenty of dimensions to a character test, the issue of membership or association with criminals and crime groups should be covered. The bottom line should be that if you are, or have been, a member of a group or organisation, or had or have an association with a person, group or organisation that is suspected of being involved in criminal conduct, then you’re not welcome in the UAE.

If the UAE wants to shake off its international reputation as a meeting place for organised crime groups, then it’s going to have to ensure that its non-citizen visitors are not only law-abiding, but of good character.

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 23 Oct 2018