The UAE invests a great deal in media advertising; marketing the country globally as a desirable tourist destination and hub for business. It can be disconcerting because one can be looking at an Emirates advertisement on one side of their newspaper, while reading another UAE tourist horror story on the other. Dubai will host Expo 2020 this year, showcasing entrepreneurship, business and development opportunities, despite being one of the riskiest places to invest in the world.
Over the past decade, we have seen unimaginable, blatantly lawless conduct from local business partners, sponsors, lawyers, and from the ruling families themselves. Foreign investors have served lengthy prison sentences after being levied with false allegations, ostensibly designed to neutralise them while predatory business associates can pick off their assets.
It’s no secret that Dubai is one of the world’s most prolific money laundering hubs. While quite disturbing to the FBI, the US has long turned a blind eye to Dubai financial mis-dealings in favour of a stronger political alliance in the Middle East. In return for this “friendship”, the world’s leading countries have remained supportive, even if it is to the detriment of citizens.
Despite the fact that Dubai’s shaky economy has seen two major crashes in the past decade, foreigners continue to gamble with their capital, and with their freedom, in the gulf nation. With intensified media coverage on the risks of traveling to and investing in Dubai, common sense seems to be overshadowed by the marketing-inspired hope of riches and luxury; the country is a modern Ali Baba’s cave that draws people with the promise of treasure, but too often traps them as soon as they taste success. “I never thought it would happen to me” is a common response amongst Dubai investors victimised by the endemic legal abuse that defines the UAE’s business culture.
Over the course of 12 years in the real estate business in Dubai with his company Aston Pearl, British citizen Priyesh Patel had built a successful life and a business with a strong reputation, surviving the market downturn and still Aston Pearl survived despite many competitors going out of business. He had a loyal list of clients who trusted his judgement and he was well respected amongst his peers. Real estate is a tough business, but with hard work and a solid reputation, it’s a business that can be very lucrative.
It was in 2017 when a member of the Aston Pearl team approached Priyesh with a long-term Egyptian client of the firm, Mr Moemen Hanafy Mohamed Hanafy. Moemen was in need of help and requested assistance from Priyesh. He was embroiled in a legal case and was seeking recommendations on counsel. Priyesh put him in touch with Bin Haider Advocates, a prominent UAE lawyer who was known to Priyesh, introduced to him by his business partner, Safura Abasniya. Priyesh had also previously used Bin Haider services and also was a client of Bin Haider.
Moemen decided to use the services of Bin Haider and needed to sell a number of his properties in order to pay the fees. The sale of the properties was handled by Moemen’s designated broker and Aston Pearl who agreed with Moemen a fee for their services.
Recognising the urgency of the sale, Aston Pearl, through one of its brokers, managed to secure a single buyer for the properties at a price Moemen was happy and agreed with. It was a good result. The Office Manager and broker who worked on the deal were present at the Dubai Land Department, along with Moemen to complete the property ownership transfer as per the laws of Dubai. This includes Moemen physically attending, signing, confirming and evidencing that he is the rightful owner of the sold properties additionally that he has received the relevant funds in full. Also the buyer was present at the Dubai Land Department plus government staff and the Aston Pearl office manager and broker.
Upon collection of the monies, Moemen deposited funds with Aston Pearl who were instructed by Moemen to prioritise paying Bin Haider, with the remainder of the fees earned by Aston Pearl being distributed between Safura, Moemen’s broker, Priyesh and relevant staff who had worked on the deal. A cheque was subsequently issued to Bin Haider from Priyesh and all Aston Pearl staff and a handful of associates were paid as per the agreement who assisted in facilitating the deal.
All seemed well until Safura and Bin Haider became aware of the total value of the property sales during an informal conversation with Moemen. After learning of the total value, Safura and Bin Haider suddenly increased his fees with demands. When Moemen stated he could not meet the higher demands as he had paid fees away to Aston Pearl and the team of individuals working on the deal. Safura and Bin Haider instigated Moemen to accuse Priyesh and the broker of stealing the amount which had been agreed upon as their fees. If this was not shocking enough for Priyesh, Safura also joined Bin Haider in order to pressure Priyesh to hand over a sum of money that he had never earned, making allegations of theft. To this day, the logic behind their allegations is still unclear and has not been proven with any actual, or real evidence.
Subsequently, a case was filed against Priyesh and the designated broker by Moemen, who was represented by none other than Bin Haider. Priyesh was very concerned, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he was fully aware of how the UAE legal system works, including the time it takes to resolve issues and the impact such cases can have on your life and mobility. He was also very aware of how much more complicated things could become for him when trying to fight against Bin Haider with his local connections and financial strength.
By this point Safura appeared sincere with Priyesh again and after a long discussion she advised him to leave the UAE. It was a very tough decision, but it wasn’t forever, he was planning on fighting the case and returning with the assistance and assurance of Safura he left the UAE. He just didn’t want to be trapped. The UAE laws require passports to be handed over to the authorities whilst court cases are pending. During this period, not only are you unable to leave the country, but basic tasks become impossible.
How do you renew your visa and work permits, how do you renew business licenses, how do you renew your phone contract, car etc, if you can’t do those things, how can you survive? Priyesh was naturally worried, but was assured by Safura, who had known Bin Haider for much longer, that she would resolve the issue and then he could return as normal. Priyesh and the broker involved in the deal, felt they had no choice but to leave.
Priyesh immediately engaged with legal counsel in the UAE to resolve the case. However, he was tried and convicted in absentia, with no right to defend himself, nor to present evidence. To add further salt to the wound, it came to light that Safura had collaborated with Moemen, and Bin Haider to testifying against Priyesh and the broker.
The consequences for Priyesh were significant. Safura had managed to seize control of the company and all company bank accounts in his absence. In the UAE this can only be done with the support of the local company sponsor, Adel Al Nuwais, a UAE national who is the owner on paper but works for an annual fee.
When Priyesh left Dubai, there was close to AED 2 million in the company account. Why would Priyesh leave and not take the AED 2 million? In the blink of an eye, everything Priyesh had worked to achieve over the past 12 years; his reputation, his contacts, his business; had all been lost. His world torn apart.
Londoner Priyesh Patel became another target
“Priyesh Patel’s closest business associates conspired with one of his most loyal clients, the man Priyesh had done so much to help, together with one of the UAE’s most renowned lawyers, to level false allegations against him, turn him into a fugitive, and take over his company,” comments Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and founder of Due Process International, “His life has been devastated and he has been forced to start from zero all over again. It is a shocking story; Moemen Hanafy came to him precisely because he knew he could trust Priyesh, he knew Priyesh was perhaps the only person who could help him and Priyesh did not let him down. In return, Safura, Moemen, Isa Bin Haider all teamed up to ruin his life.
"Priyesh is even a client of Isa Bin Haider but in the UAE, if you are important enough, professional ethics don’t matter. We see this over and over again in the Emirates; foreign professionals, entrepreneurs, business people simply have no security, regardless of how long they have worked, how successful their company is, and how scrupulously they have followed the rules; it can all be sabotaged at a moment’s notice when locals decide to target you.
"When it comes to framing foreign investors and workers, there are no limits to what locals will do. Stealing foreign investment is big business and a favourite pastime in the UAE; those familiar enough with the system, practice to manipulate it to their advantage and will do so without the slightest consideration for the welfare of the countless prisoners they leave behind."
Stirling recalls past cases "There is no dirty trick off the books with government bodies, tycoons and royals doing whatever they want without fear of ramifications. Whether it is Nakheel deliberately flooding stores to force tenants out, or whether it’s Baker McKenzie’s CEO Habib al Mulla, representing both opposing parties in a courtroom without their permission, the blatant disdain for ethical practice, due process, and long-term investment protections, is bewildering."
“What happened to Priyesh Patel would be unthinkable in any country in the Western world, but in Dubai it is disturbingly common. As a foreigner it didn’t matter that he had built a successful business, contributed immensely to the local economy, developed an extensive network of influential contacts, and strove to help everyone he associated with; he was a target, he had no rights, and he could be betrayed and robbed without consequence. In case after case, we have seen expat entrepreneurs and investors treated by the system as disposable sources of short term profit, with the companies they created through years of hard work seized and looted by unscrupulous local partners or sponsors, deals and agreements arbitrarily nullified, and false criminal cases fabricated to cover up the plots.
"The UAE welcomes foreign capital, it lures investors, but provides no protections, no systemic safeguards, and enthusiastically colludes with locals to divest foreigners of their rights. Priyesh has lost everything he worked for over more than a decade, despite following all the rules, respecting the culture, and working with integrity for years. It is time for investors to learn the lesson that, if you are a foreigner, success in the UAE only makes you more vulnerable.
“We have dealt with innumerable cases over the past decade and some of the public ones have included; Australians Matt Joyce and Marcus Lee, British citizens Safi Qarashi and Mohammed Haddad, Canadian Andre Gauthier, Frenchman Reda Boulahdid, Michael Smith, and Ryan Cornelius, The sheer number is concerning and should be a red alert to the business and investment community whom we are strongly discouraging from continuing to bring their skills, resources and capital to the UAE as long as the business culture and legal environment remains so disastrously risky.”
Radha Stirling, is founder and CEO of UK / USA based legal and human rights organisation Detained in Dubai, Expert Witness and respected analyst of Middle East Policy.
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