Rolling Stone: Arms Dealers and Drug Lords Are Scooping Up Property in Dubai

This article was written by Government Accountability Project Investigator, Zack Kopplin, and was originally published here.

BUILDING AN ILLEGAL weapons factory is expensive. When convicted torturer Ross Roggio built his factory in Iraqi Kurdistan and manufactured guns that ended up in the hands of militant groups, including Hamas, he needed millions of dollars. That money came from Zarya Faruk, the son of a Kurdish billionaire.

Roggio, whose case Rolling Stone covered in depth, is now in jail, but until recently, the whereabouts of Faruk have remained a mystery.

Faruk was allied with a powerful Kurdish politician in northern Iraq. When that man was ousted, the fallout hit Faruk, too. The illegal weapons factory set up by Roggio and Faruk was shut down.

Today, Faruk, who did not respond to a request for comment, is unwelcome in large parts of northern Iraq. There is a warrant out for his arrest in Iraqi Kurdistan for misuse of security companies, according to two Kurdish sources. And given the federal prosecution of Roggio, American agents may also be interested in Faruk too.

Dubai property records from the Dubai Unlocked project — which were obtained by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington D.C. based non-profit organization and then shared with over 70 media partners around the world, in coordination with Norwegian outlet E24 and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project — show Faruk acquired a house in Mohammed Bin Rashid city, an elite neighborhood named after the ruler of Dubai.

Faruk’s new digs are known for its man-made lagoon and opulent green space. In advertising materials, the neighborhood is described as a city within a city, with every possible amenity easily accessible.

“The UAE takes its role in protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously,” a UAE official said in response to questions from the Dubai Unlocked coalition, adding: “In its continuing pursuit of global criminals, the UAE works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance. The UAE is committed to continuing these efforts and actions more than ever today and over the longer term.”

The data shows Asadullah Khalid, a former Afghan government official and accused war criminal, has apparently made a home in Dubai. Khalid served in a variety of roles in the American-backed Afghan government, including as head of the National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence service.

Khalid was “known to have had a dungeon in Ghazni,” Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat, told a Canadian parliamentary commission in 2009. “He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way.

In Kandahar, where he served as governor, Khalid had a similar dungeon under his guest house. “He acknowledged this,” Colvin said. “He was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.”

For years, Khalid, who previously claimed the charges against him were “propaganda,” owned a villa in Faruk’s neighborhood that he was renting out for tens of thousands of dollars every month, documents show.

Down the road from Khalid, on Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island made in the shape of a palm tree off the Emirate’s coast, are several properties connected to Rami Makhlouf and his brother Ihab, the cousins of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. The Makhloufs, who are some of the richest and most powerful men in Syria, were sanctioned by the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom for public corruption and enabling regime abuses. (Ihab was sanctioned for helping his brother.)

In 2020, Rami Makhlouf acknowledged, on Facebook, evading western sanctions on behalf of the Syrian.

Syrian media reported that Rami Makhlouf was put under a travel ban by the Syrian regime in 2020, but rental data shows that he has made millions from renting out his properties.

The Makhloufs’ neighbors on Palm Jumeirah include the Uruguayan cartel leader Sebastian Marset, who is wanted by authorities across South America for narcotrafficking. Marset was accused by the president of Colombia of arranging the assassination of Marcelo Pecci, a Paraguayan prosecutor, while Pecci was on his honeymoon in Colombia.

Marset has denied allegations against him, while insulting South American police and prosecutors.

Another person found in Dubai Unlocked data is Danilo Vunjão Santana Gouveia, a Brazilian sertanejo musician who performs under the name Danilo Dubaiano. Gouveia is wanted in Brazil for allegedly running a major bitcoin Ponzi scheme.

Dubai also counts as residents Jafar Dhia Jafar, who was Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons chief during the 1980’s; Naing Htut Aung, a sanctioned businessman whom the U.S. Treasury Department accuses of supplying weapons to the Myanmar junta’s military; and Lanfranco Cirillo, Putin’s architect, who is wanted in Italy for alleged money laundering and tax evasion.

All the Dubai property owners in the story received detailed requests for comment from the consortium of organizations that were part of the Dubai Unlocked project, but only Jafar responded. “I decided to invest in real estate in Dubai because I live in Dubai and the return on such investments is satisfactory,” he says.

But for many people in the data, including Faruk, Dubai may be appealing because it keeps them out of the reach of international law enforcement. “The United Arab Emirates is a law enforcement black hole,” says Jodi Vittori, a professor at Georgetown University who studies corruption and illicit finance.

“If I said I wasn’t afraid of extradition, I would be lying,” Gouveia said in an interview with Globo, in 2019. Five years later though, he remains free.

Until recently, the United Arab Emirates lacked extradition treaties with many countries, making it a go-to destination for fugitives from around the globe. But even with treaties, extradition is still difficult. “If the Emirates see no benefit to the extradition, they will not surrender a wanted person,” says Radha Sterling,​​ an attorney and human rights advocate who leads the legal assistance organization Detained in Dubai.

Roggio getting arrested may have been a warning shot for Faruk — and he appears to have taken precautions to avoid the same fate.