The new Casablanca: Why Dubai draws Iran, intrigue, and tusk smugglers
Dubai is known to be among the world's most freewheeling business environment – and one that is attractive to Iranian businesses looking to circumvent Iran sanctions.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
It's been a freewheeling time even for Dubai.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In just two weeks in February, authorities seized Iraqi artifacts being smuggled in a chair pad, caught a traveler to Europe hiding heroin pills in his stomach, and found that $3.5 million of elephant tusks had slipped across their borders before being intercepted in Thailand.
Simultaneously, the murder of a Hamas gunrunner in his five-star hotel room here was flooding international headlines with sensational details of the hit squad with its fake passports and disguises. And now, Dubai's thriving trade with Iran is drawing fresh ire from the United States as it pushes for a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran firms.
The emirate that put itself on the map with its "anything goes" attitude toward pleasure – building everything from islands to an indoor ski slope in this Bedouin land – has in recent months gained notoriety for its apparently similar disposition toward business.
Smuggled whiskey and Afghan drug money
Like entrepôts past – think Casablanca, Panama, Miami – Dubai naturally attracts smugglers. Its strategic location between Europe and Asia adds to its appeal. And while the authorities have taken steps to nab contraband, especially when pressured from abroad, they are reluctant to slow with paperwork the speed of business that makes Dubai, Dubai.
"As long as the illicit activities do not interfere with the safety and security of the hub, they can coexist," says Tarik Yousef, an expert in Arab world economies and dean of the Dubai School of Government. "They can even take advantage of the hub."
Many do. Smuggling, along with financial crimes, make up "the majority of serious criminal activity" in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to a 2008 report by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global monitoring body.
That includes whiskey bottles clinking in their crates as they're trucked across the desert into teetotal Saudi Arabia. Russian women are flown here and forced to work as prostitutes. Suitcases of cash from the Afghan drug trade are carried in to be laundered.
And all manner of goods banned by the UN for Iranian use are packed and sailed across the Gulf – a trade sure to reenter the global spotlight once new sanctions pass, possibly within weeks.