Putin's oligarchs have an escape route: UAE, Israel and South Korea

Putin's oligarchs have an escape route: UAE, Israel and South Korea
7 min read
21 Mar, 2022
As Russian oligarchs scramble to store their wealth amidst rising international sanctions, all eyes are on the most likely candidates: Israel, UAE and South Korea. So far, they have failed the call of the Ukrainian people, writes Anthony Harwood.
Dubai earned a reputation for delivering luxury for those with cash to splash years ago, and is now a popular destination for Russian oligarchs escaping sanctions. [Getty]

It was the screeching of tyres that accompanied the arrival of sanctions last week as Russian oligarchs desperately tried to take off in their private jets and get out of reach of the authorities.

The billionaire oil tycoon, Eugene Shvidler, didn’t move fast enough after his Bombardier Global 650 jet arrived in the UK from the New Jersey the previous Friday.

Shvidler had been due to fly to Dubai on Tuesday afternoon but his plane was impounded at Farnborough Airport hours before take-off as British sanctions kicked in over his country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I have made it a criminal offence for ANY Russian aircraft to enter UK airspace and now the government can detain these jets,” said the British transport minister, Grant Shapps. “We will suffocate Putin’s cronies ability to continue living as normal while thousands of innocent people die”.

"The global community could hardly stand by and do nothing after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and began shelling innocent civilians"

This strength of sentiment was echoed across the Western world as the US, Canada and all European Union countries shut the door on the oligarchs who, even if they couldn’t move their mansions, were going to do their damnedest to get themselves and their jets out.

In Spain police seized a $140m yacht belonging to Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB officer, and Italy impounded a $580m one belonging to Russian oligarch Andrey Igorevich. It was the same story in France and Germany where two $600m vessels were seized.

At least 14 private jets from Russia landed in Israel but with restrictions on how long they could stay at Ben Gurion International Airport, they soon had to move on.

On Monday an aircraft belonging to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich – who was among the seven Russian billionaires with close links to Vladimir Putin sanctioned by the UK last week - arrived in Tel Aviv before hastily leaving for Istanbul soon after.

There has been criticism, of course, that this should have been done years ago after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The global community could hardly stand by and do nothing after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and began shelling innocent civilians.

And in the absence of military intervention by NATO for fear of precipitating World War 3, stopping the oil and gas export on which Russia’s economy depends, sanctions against the Russian banking system and the billionaires close to Putin was the next best thing.

Except, it seems, in Dubai where at least 76 luxury properties are owned by Russian oligarchs. No problem mooring their swanky yachts there, it seems.

Perspectives

We have also had to listen while the United Arab Emirates, a British ally, refused to condemn the invasion during a UN Security Council vote.

The country’s self-important attack dog, Anwar Gargash, said the Gulf state “believes that taking sides would only lead to more violence”.

But isn’t the point of something like sanctions, which the UAE has also refused to impose, that they bite hardest when everyone is united in enforcing them?

Let’s be honest about it; the UAE doesn’t want to fall out with Putin for geopolitics reasons, and hey, oligarchs loaded with roubles looking for new jurisdictions to store their wealth are very welcome in Dubai.

But I will take no lectures from someone like Gargash who loves to make speeches pontificating about world affairs at London’s respected international affairs think tank, Chatham House.

"Let’s be honest about it; the UAE doesn’t want to fall out with Putin for geopolitics reasons, and hey, oligarchs loaded with roubles looking for new jurisdictions to store their wealth are very welcome in Dubai"

I will take no lectures from someone whose country has spent the past seven years as part of coalition bombing Yemen back to the Dark Ages, but who strangely is now “rejecting military solutions” when it comes to Ukraine.

Instead he favours a diplomatic solution. Well, don’t we all. But as every history student knows, brutal dictators like Putin only sue for peace when they are forced to. Otherwise they just keep going.

Is the apparent willingness of the Russians to negotiate with President Zelenskyy, in any measure, down to the UAE’s steadfast position not to condemn the invasion at the UN and let the oligarchs flock to Dubai?

Of course not. Mr Gargash and his friends have succeeded only in bolstering Putin’s position and resolve by their abject failure to do anything.

Perspectives

No, the Russians are looking for a way out because enough countries backed sanctions to make them bite and because of the bravery of the Ukrainian people in giving the Russian army the mother of all bloody noses.

While the rest of the world looked on in horror at the prospect of invasion, the UAE was busy stressing its “depth of friendship” with Moscow.

The National, a UAE-based publication owned by the royal family, even told staff not to refer to Russian actions as an “invasion”. Now, where have we heard that before? Oh yes, it’s the Kremlin’s “special operations” version.

Israel, too, does not want to fall out with Putin because Russia controls the skies over Syria where it needs to prevent attacks by Hezbollah. There’s also the issue of the Golan Heights, where Israel wants to expand settlements, but where Moscow supports a claim by Damascus to the disputed region.

"Oligarchs wanting safe places to store their wealth will be looking for a non-EU, non-NATO aligned country that hasn’t yet sanctioned Russia. And at the moment the only economically-developed states who fit that bill are the UAE, Israel and South Korea"

And let’s not forget Iran’s nuclear deal, which Israel wants to scupper, and to which Russia is both a negotiator and participant.

So we have the bizarre spectacle of America’s strongest ally in the Middle East only belatedly supporting a UN vote condemning the invasion, refusing to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and yet to bring in any sanctions.

Naked self-interest, of course, and understandable, but let’s be honest about it.

Oligarchs wanting safe places to store their wealth will be looking for a non-EU, non-NATO aligned country that hasn’t yet sanctioned Russia. And at the moment the only economically-developed states who fit that bill are the UAE, Israel and South Korea.

So these are the countries who stand to make a lot of money cashing in on the suffering of the Ukrainian people. It’s these governments who are prepared to, as it were, hold their noses about Russian investment that comes their way, and who are beneficiaries of this horrible war.

Perspectives

According to Transparency International, £6.7bn of questionable funds have been invested in UK property since 2016, of which at least £1.5bn “has been bought by Russians accused of corruption of links to the Kremlin”. Given the secrecy around such purchases, the true total is likely to be considerably more than that.

There’s always going to be more money to invest by Russian oligarchs, but now there are much fewer places.

It remains to be seen to what extent countries like UAE and Israel are going to pivot towards Russia, and away from the US.  But when this war is done, and may it be soon for the sake of the poor Ukrainian people, we will remember the countries who stood up to tyranny and those who did not.

Just think about that the next time Mr Gargash stands up at Chatham House to give us the benefit of his wisdom on world affairs.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood  

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.