An Unlikely Criminal Crossroads
From Egypt to Afghanistan, when terrorists and gangsters need a place to meet, to relax, maybe to invest, they head to Dubai, a bustling city-state on the Persian Gulf. The Middle East's unquestioned financial capital, Dubai is the showcase of the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich federation of sheikdoms. Forty years ago, Dubai was a backwater; today, it hosts dozens of banks and one of the world's busiest ports; its free-trade zones are crammed with thousands of companies. Construction is everywhere--skyscrapers, malls, hotels, and, soon, the world's tallest building.
But Dubai also serves as the region's criminal crossroads, a hub for smuggling, money laundering, and underground banking. There are Russian and Indian mobsters, Iranian arms traffickers, and Arab jihadists. Funds for the 9/11 hijackers and African embassy bombers were transferred through the city. It was the heart of Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan's black market in nuclear technology and other proliferation cases. Half of all applications to buy U.S. military equipment from Dubai are from bogus front companies, officials say. "Iran," adds one U.S. official, "is building a bomb through Dubai." Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents thwarted the shipment of 3,000 U.S. military night-vision goggles by an Iranian pair based in Dubai. Moving goods undetected is not hard. Dhows--rickety wooden boats that have plowed the Arabian Sea for centuries--move along the city center, uninspected, down the aptly named Smuggler's Creek.
U.A.E. rulers have taken terrorism seriously since 9/11, but Washington has a half-dozen extradition requests that they refuse to honor. The list includes people accused of rape, murder, and arms trafficking, and the last fugitive of the BCCI banking scandal. The country has put money laundering controls on the books but has made few cases. Interior Minister Sheik Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan told U.S. News the U.A.E. has made great strides in cracking down, but he insists that the real problems lie elsewhere. "We are a neutral country, like Switzerland," he says. "Give us the evidence, and we will do something about it. Don't blame others." Not everyone agrees. "All roads lead to Dubai," says former treasury agent John Cassara, author of Hide and Seek, a forthcoming book on terrorism finance. Cassara tried explaining U.S. concerns about Dubai to a local businessman but got only a puzzled look: "Mr. John, money laundering? But that's what we do. "
This story appears in the December 5, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.