Research documents and analysis

Dubai: the new sanctuary for Politically Exposed Persons?

Warning note

This report addresses the apparent breach of international legal obligations by the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai. The references made to individuals, such as Isabel dos Santos and other entities cited in the report, respect the principle of the presumption of innocence and do not contain any value judgment about them, only in relation to Dubai’s legal duties.

The federal constitutional system of Dubai

Dubai is not a sovereign state, but a federated state in the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates is a constitutional federation created in December 1971. It is made up of seven emirates, of which Dubai is one. The political system is based on a constitution that determines the main rules of the country’s political and constitutional organization. According to the custom adopted, the ruler of Abu Dhabi (Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan) is the president of the United Arab Emirates (despite holding the title of president, the country is not governed as a republic, but as a monarchy) and the ruler of Dubai is the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, the head of government. Within the United Arab Emirates, each emirate has considerable administrative autonomy within itself.

Despite the wide latitude each emirate has, each is subject to federal authority in the following matters: foreign relations, security and defense, nationality and immigration issues, education, public health, currency, postal, telephone and other communication services, air traffic control, aircraft licensing, labor relations, banking, delimitation of territorial waters and extradition of criminals. [1][2]

The federal judiciary is a constitutionally fully independent body (under Article 94 of the Constitution) and includes the Federal Supreme Court and the Courts of First Instance. The Supreme Council of Rulers appoints the five judges headed by a president to the Supreme Court. The judges are responsible for deciding whether federal laws are constitutional, mediating disputes between Emiratis.

Consequently, Dubai is part of a federal legal system in which international relations, and therefore its international obligations, as well as extradition procedures, are subject to the federal rules of the Emirates. In theory, there is a set of rules governing the actions of each Emirate within a constitutional framework.

Isabel dos Santos’ situation and the Interpol warrant

It is public knowledge that the Angolan Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant for the extradition of Isabel dos Santos at the end of 2022, announcing that it had disclosed this through an Interpol Red Notice.

A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement authorities around the world to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action. It is not an international arrest warrant. Individuals are sought by a requesting member country and the other member countries apply their own laws when deciding whether to arrest a person and extradite them or not.[3]

In the specific case of Isabel dos Santos, it is public and notorious that she is in Dubai. According to Bellingcat, a Dutch-based investigative journalism website specializing in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, founded by British journalist Eliot Higgins in July 2014, a TikTok post by Isabel dos Santos dated December 4, 2022, is located in the swimming pool of the Bulgari Yacht Club in Dubai. In another case, Isabel dos Santos was tagged by a friend in an Instagram post on December 27, 2022, where she can be seen enjoying a meal at Nusr-Et Steakhouse Dubai. She also appeared briefly in another friend’s post from the restaurant that day and the restaurant’s reviews point to the presence of Nusret Gökçe – also known as Salt Bae – at its outlet in Dubai in the last week of December 2022. In a photo posted on Instagram by another friend on January 8, 2023, Isabel dos Santos can be seen in the red and purple corridor of the Trove restaurant in Dubai, within the Dubai Mall complex[4] .

Given that Isabel dos Santos is (or was in 2022 and 2023) in Dubai, and that Angola has issued an arrest warrant published through an Interpol Red Notice, it is important to understand the situation and reaction of Dubai or the United Arab Emirates. Apparently, none.

The legal obligations of Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

The UAE has been a member of Interpol since October 2, 1973. Each of the member countries hosts an INTERPOL National Central Bureau (NCB), which liaises between the various countries and the General Secretariat via a secure global police communications network called I-24/7. The NCBs are the heart of INTERPOL. They seek the necessary information from other NCBs to help investigate crimes or criminals in their own country and share criminal data and information to help another country.[5]

As a result, when Interpol’s local NCB in Abu-Dhabi received a Red Notice concerning someone in Dubai, the Emirati police forces had to take action.

Although there is no extradition agreement between the UAE and Angola, there is a federal law that regulates the issue.  In the UAE, the extradition of wanted persons is governed by Federal Law No. 39 of 2006 on International Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters (“Extradition Law”). The Extradition Law is generally applied if the UAE and the requesting country do not have an extradition treaty in force.

According to Article 11 of the Extradition Law, a request for surrender must be submitted by the requesting country through diplomatic channels to the competent department and supported by the necessary information and documents, such as the name and description of the wanted person, legal texts applicable to the crime, and the applicable penalty, conviction sentence, if the wanted person has already been convicted, with proof that the sentence is enforceable. All documents and information must be legalized and translated into Arabic.

However, it should be noted that the UAE will not allow the extradition of a person if, under Article 9 of the Extradition Law:

-is a citizen of the United Arab Emirates;

-the object of the crime is political in nature. Terrorist crimes, war crimes and genocide are not considered political crimes;

[It should be noted in this regard that Isabel dos Santos’ public defense of the accusations made against her by the Angolan state is based on this premise: the allegation of political persecution. To that extent, it is an anticipation of a defense that she could make in an Emirati court].

-the object of the crime is limited to infractions of military obligations;

-the request for surrender aims to penalize or prosecute a person for their religion, nationality or ethnic affiliation;

-the wanted person has previously been tried and convicted or acquitted of the same crime;

-the UAE courts have already handed down an irrevocable judgment on the crime for which his extradition has been requested;

-there has been a lapse of time or the criminal proceedings have been closed; or you may be subjected to inhuman or insulting treatment or torture in the requesting country if you are extradited.

In addition to the above, the surrender request is subject to the following key conditions: the crime must be penalized by the laws of the United Arab Emirates and the requesting country for at least 1 year or more in prison.

The competent court has the right to determine whether the requested person should be returned to the requesting country. This determination must be in accordance with the law and the reasons for reaching a decision must be justified (Article 20).

The Extradition Law also allows the UAE authorities to provisionally arrest the wanted person in cases of urgency. Additional documents and information may also be requested by the UAE authorities if it is considered that the information submitted is insufficient.

Reasons for Dubai’s inaction

The matter falls under federal jurisdiction, i.e. the United Arab Emirates and not Dubai.

The Red Notice should have led to action by the local police. That action would not have meant arresting Isabel dos Santos and putting her on a plane to Angola, but the start of the internal judicial process of extradition under Emirati Federal Law.

If this doesn’t happen, there are two opposite explanations.

Hypothesis A: The Dubai pattern: political sanctuary in return for huge investments

Firstly, it could be a deliberate act by the Emirati authorities out of political interest or local corruption. Let’s remember that Dubai has become a safe haven for Russian oligarchs previously based in London.

In fact, it may be the internal policy of the UAE government (or federally-covered Dubai) to be the global point of refuge and reception for various politically exposed people, receiving large sums of money for this protection role.

In fact, since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian citizens have bought 6.3 billion dollars worth of existing and developing property in Dubai. It is estimated that the amount of Russian money flowing into Dubai real estate has increased more than tenfold since the invasion of Ukraine. This illustrates how the city has become a prime destination for the Russian elite avoiding sanctions or escaping the war itself. Of the 6.3 billion dollars in residential properties acquired – a “conservative estimate”, according to the report – 2.4 billion dollars were existing properties and 3.9 billion dollars were still under development[6] .

There is a pattern of behavior here, applicable to Isabel dos Santos, the Russian oligarchs and anyone else who seeks friendly cover in Dubai. They invest in the country and are welcomed and protected.

This may be the most obvious explanation for Dubai’s dissonant behavior in relation to its international law enforcement obligations.

Hypothesis B: The lack of a comprehensive legal initiative

Although many facts indicate that Dubai purposely assumes itself as a sanctuary for political protection in exchange for large investments, it may be that it considers that domestic federal law is not being fully complied with, leading to action by the authorities.

Strictly speaking, it could be argued that a Red Notice (or any initiative to extradite or freeze the assets of entities located in Dubai) must comply with the protocols set out in Article 11 of the Extradition Law. In other words, in order to be effective in triggering federal judicial proceedings, a Red Alert must be followed by a formal extradition request, which must be submitted by the requesting country through diplomatic channels (Angolan Embassy in Abu Dhabi) to the relevant Emirati department, supported by the necessary information and documents, such as the name and description of the wanted person, legal texts applicable to the crime, and the applicable penalty.  All documents and information must be legalized and translated into Arabic.

In this sense, any Angolan warrant would only be effective when accompanied by the full procedure laid down in Emirati federal law.

Conclusion

The question remains as to whether Dubai is becoming a privileged sanctuary for the refuge and protection of politically exposed people in exchange for large investments, failing to comply with its international legal obligations, or whether there is a lack of knowledge of the internal rules of the Emirates and Dubai that means that the judicial authorities of the various countries are unable to have the necessary success in extending their law enforcement to Dubai.


[1] UAE Constitution, available at https://elaws.moj.gov.ae/MainArabicTranslation.aspx?val=UAE-MOJ_LC-En%2F00_CONSTITUTION%2FUAE-LC-En_1971-07-18_00000_Dos.html&np=&lmp=undefined

[2] UAE The political system, available at https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/the-uae-government/political-system-and-government

[3] Interpol.Red Notice. Available https://www.interpol.int/How-we-work/Notices/Red-Notices/View-Red-Notices

[4] Miguel Ramalho, Wanted by Interpol, Relaxing in Dubai: Geolocating Isabel dos Santos’ Life of Luxury, available at https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2023/02/03/wanted-by-interpol-relaxing-in-dubai-geolocating-isabel-dos-santos-life-of-luxury/

[5] Interpol. United Arab Emirates, available at https://www.interpol.int/Who-we-are/Member-countries/Asia-South-Pacific/UNITED-ARAB-EMIRATES

[6] Carmen Molina Acosta and Eiliv Frich Flydal, Russians bought up $6.3 billion in Dubai property after 2022 Ukraine invasion, report finds, Available at https://www.icij.org/news/2024/05/russians-bought-up-6-3-billion-in-dubai-property-after-2022-ukraine-invasion-report-finds/

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