Photo by Umar Shariff Photography
Artillery Row

Gangsters by the Gulf

Dubai and the rise of organised crime

Close your eyes and think of British criminals abroad. The images which come to mind are probably filled with pink porcine flesh sizzling by the pool, Essex boys in dazzling white villas, “uno beero por favor” and all the other cultural detritus of British crime’s connection with the Costa del Sol in Spain. But things don’t stay still. The noughties are over, and British crime has moved on.

A new generation of British crims have found a home

The hot new place to be is one which would have seemed absurd only a few decades ago: Dubai. There, amidst the gleaming mirrored towers and Arabian sun, a new generation of British crims have found a home.

That was brought home just recently with the successful conviction of Abdulla Mohammad Ali Bin Beyat Alfalasi, an Emirati father of six arrested last December at a Belgravia flat owned by his wife’s wealthy family. He was the ringleader of a gang of mules who managed to smuggle £104 million out of Britain and into Dubai, which the National Crime Agency said was one of the largest such money laundering networks they’d caught.

The smuggled money belonged to as many as a dozen British drug gangs. Mules (mostly found by Michelle Clarke, a British woman Alfalasi met in Dubai) would be paid around £3,000 per trip. They were booked onto business class flights, to use the higher luggage allowance, with suitcases filled with vacuum packed cash covered in coffee grounds or air fresheners in an attempt to evade sniffer dogs.

On arrival the mules would declare the cash at customs, producing documents in the name of Alfalasi’s company, Omnivest Gold Trading, claiming to be legal couriers. The money would then be converted into dirhams, with some used to buy African gold or crypto currency, before the funds were made available again to the British gangsters.

The scheme was uncovered when Tara Hanlon, a furloughed operations manager at a Leeds-based recruitment firm, was stopped late at night in Heathrow with five suitcases filled with cash. She told officials she “wasn’t sure what to wear” and was only going to Dubai to cut Clarke’s hair.

Analysis of her phone quickly revealed that she’d been recruited by Clarke as a mule, using the money to pay off her debts. The Kim Kardashian fan had already had plastic surgery to look like her idol. She’d also tried to recruit other mules, with Clarke advising her to set up a fake company to launder the money as the proceeds of a fictitious hair extension business. 

In total 36 mules made at least 83 trips. Alfalasi, who needed an Arabic interpreter at his trial, was sentenced to 9 years and seven months in prison, whilst Hanlon received 34 months. Clarke is still on the run and believed to be in Dubai. 

With some 240,000 British expats, cheap flights and regular flows of tourists, criminals can expect not only to blend in but also to find plenty of company as they enjoy the sunshine, luxury cars and expensive parties of Dubai. 

Amongst the other British gangsters who have hidden out, there is Glaswegian crime boss Steven Lyons, who ran his organisation from Dubai via the encrypted EncroChat app before police cracked it, causing so many arrests that he had to flee Dubai amidst fears he’d be killed by rival gangsters there. Mancunian drug lord Jordan Clements lived in a Dubai villa before his arrest. Liverpudlian cocaine boss Leon Cullen helped direct a gang war from Dubai before being arrested there. 

Dubai is an attractive place to do business, legal or otherwise

Nor is it just British criminals. The Kinahan gang from Ireland is one of the world’s biggest, dealing in drugs and money laundering, with the US recently issuing $5 million rewards for information leading to the capture of its leaders. It made Dubai its hub of operations, until US sanctions led the UAE to seize its financial assets. 

Other foreign gangsters have included French drug lord Moufide “Mouf” Bouchibi, caught by police in Dubai after nine years on the run; Nigerian fraudster Ramon Abbas aka Hushpuppi, caught in a joint operation with the Americans; Danish gangster Amir Mekky, returned to face trial in Sweden; and Ridouan Taghi, the leader of the “Angels of Death” gang in Holland. 

Those names suggest another reason for Dubai’s popularity. With an increasing number of criminals of Muslim heritage in Western Europe, an easily accessible Muslim state only a plane ride away from many of the countries they’re connected to, provides a different sort of cultural practicality. That’s what happened with Mancunian Mohammed Uzair Rashid, who tried to smuggle nearly £1 million in heroin from Pakistan to Birmingham via Dubai. 

With loose residency laws, few questions asked and little financial transparency, Dubai is an attractive place to do business, legal or otherwise. Hence why the Kinahan crime family was able to purchase a 115 square foot office in Dubai between 2017 and 2018, even though its extensive links to the drug trade had been public since at least 2011. Without a UAE-Ireland extradition treaty, it could operate openly. Once the US sanctioned the UAE however, it moved swiftly to deny the family’s assets. It’s now thought to be considering a move to Oman.

That may prove to be the reason why Dubai never becomes as strongly associated with crime as the Costa del Sol. The police in Dubai have proven very effective at getting rid of guests who cause too much trouble, whilst that same autocratic efficiency means that making a film about crime in Dubai on location will prove far more difficult than Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa. The world will have to wait, for now, for a Sheiksy Beast.

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