Meet the man tasked with leading the fight against money laundering in the UAE

The Emirates has developed new tools and confiscated more than $1.4bn in efforts to tackle illicit transactions, says Hamid Al Zaabi

Hamid Al Zaabi is the director general of the Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing. Antonie Robertson / The National
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The UAE’s removal from the Financial Action Task Force grey list last week was a major win but the main target is to “meet the goals of the country, not that of FATF”, according to the official leading the nation's fight against illicit transactions.

The aim is to continue improving the effectiveness of the UAE’s approach and framework, in line with international best practice, Hamid Al Zaabi, director general at the Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing (AML/CFT), told The National in an exclusive interview.

“The UAE successfully confiscated over Dh5.4 billion [$1.4 billion] from December 2021 to June 2023, primarily from cases related to professional and trade-based money laundering,” he said.

Mr Al Zaabi, who has more than 20 years of experience, is the first port of call for the FATF to learn about the progress of the UAE’s efforts to combat financial crimes, according to the executive office, which was founded in February 2021.

He said Arab countries had specific conditions to address with regards to financial crimes and the focus of his office was learning and coming up with the action plan to combat these illicit activities.

In the grey

In March 2022, the UAE was added to the grey list by the FATF, the world’s watchdog for anti-money laundering and financial terrorism, which was founded in 1989 by the Group of Seven, an intergovernmental agency of predominantly wealthy western nations whose core members include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US and Japan.

The FATF had identified risks of money laundering and terrorist financing from industries connected to banking, diamond and gold trade, and real estate.

Although the UAE has an increasingly regulated economy, the level of compliance with AML and know-your-customer requirements in some sectors is perceived to be inconsistent, stated the International Fraud & Asset Tracing 2023 report by London-based research firm Chambers and Partners.

Since the establishment of the executive office, Mr Al Zaabi said his team of about 60 have tirelessly worked with more than 90 national stakeholders, private sector companies and global institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to ensure compliance with international standards and to enforce the National AML/CFT Action Plan.

“There wasn’t much communication between the different organisations beforehand,” he said, adding that success in combating crimes depended on the extensive co-operation with different entities to ensure that regulations are enacted.

His office developed tools such as FawriTick, an automated intelligence platform that integrates details of financial crimes with a number of local and federal authorities to streamline decision-making.

There is also a reporting platform that sits within the National Statistics Centre for AML/CFT and was specifically designed to address the UAE’s needs.

The result is that the UAE has been able to more effectively monitor and exercise its regulations, Mr Al Zaabi explained.

The Gulf state has issued fines of more than Dh115 million for money laundering, conducted more than 8,000 inspections with the UAE Ministry of Economy and has seized Dh925 million in breaches of AML practices and procedures to date, according to the executive office.

Globally, the UAE signed anti-financial crime preliminary agreements with Egypt, Morocco, Serbia and Kazakhstan by the end of 2023.

The UAE also previously ratified extradition treaties with South Africa and Denmark. Both were intended to secure the return of high-profile people accused of significant financial crimes.

Stronger forward

The UAE’s removal from the FATF’s grey list last week made “no difference” to the country’s economic well-being, said Mr Al Zaabi, yet it does strengthen the country’s position moving forward.

Due to the modified status, the UAE is set to fortify its global position with easier access to financial markets and trade opportunities, he said.

It also permits international banking transaction costs to be cheaper, in addition to the UAE receiving increased co-operation and assistance from international bodies and foreign governments due to its compliance with international standards.

“Entering the green zone helps to increase the confidence of foreign countries,” Mr Al Zaabi told The National, although the UAE has no issues drawing foreign direct investment, he added.

By the end of 2023, the Emirates had the second-highest value of greenfield investments, or FDI where a parent company establishes a subsidiary in a different country, according to the Global Investment Trends Monitor report released in January by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

Only the US was ahead of the UAE, the Unctad report said. It did not provide the total values of the investments per country.

Lewis Allsopp, chairman of Dubai-based real estate agency Allsopp and Allsopp, said that previously restricted large institutional funds would likely enter the Dubai property market as a result of the country’s emergence into the FATF's green status.

“I am confident that Dubai’s real estate market is set to benefit the most from this news,” said Mr Allsopp.

When asked about what was next after being delisted from FATF’s grey list, Mr Al Zaabi said, “more work”.

“We have a very busy year ahead. Financial criminals are continually evolving their tactics and looking for gaps between national systems,” he said, citing the UAE’s National Risk Assessment plan, which should be completed by the end of 2024.

This is especially true with the emergence of the ever-changing and high-risk cryptocurrency market, which the UAE is one of the first to regulate but not shy away from, said Mr Al Zaabi.

With a strong regulatory framework and a business environment conducive to innovation, the UAE will continue to be an attractive jurisdiction for virtual asset service providers, he added.

“We can’t hold it back, this is the future.”

Updated: February 28, 2024, 3:55 PM