US sanctions on Kinahan gang set to pressure Emirates to act

Irish drug cartel ‘frequently uses Dubai as hub for its illicit activities’, US treasury says

US government sanctions imposed on the Dubai-based Kinahan crime gang sets a "red line" for the United Arab Emirates, heaping pressure on the Middle East nation to take action, experts say.

The sanctions against drug cartel leaders Christy Kinahan and his Dubai-based sons Daniel and Christopher jnr, along with three gang associates and two sports companies based in the Emirate, mean any assets or properties in the US or money held in US banks can be frozen.

The US government identified the drug-trafficking gang as operating in Ireland but also as a "significant transnational criminal organisation" spanning the UK, Spain and the UAE.

The gang "frequently uses Dubai as a facilitation hub for its illicit activities", the US department of the treasury said.

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Seven Kinahan gang members and their companies have been placed on the US treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), putting them on international financial radar.

‘No questions asked’

“This is a red line because it directly connects to the UAE national security interests. It is beyond Dubai,” said Middle East expert Dr Christopher Davidson, associate fellow at London-based foreign policy and national security think tank the Henry Jackson Society.

While Dubai sees the "global grey economy" as a lucrative area to attract laundered profits with a "no-questions-asked" policy, US sanctions should lead Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, and in turn Dubai to co-operate given the influence the US has in guaranteeing the Gulf state's security.

“This should lead theoretically to some sort of action whereas sporadic flare-ups in the British media about British and Irish organised crime groups are on their own are not enough to make the UAE authorities do anything about it,” said Dr Davidson.

Safe haven

He pointed to recent examples of the UAE co-operating with US sanctions on Iran to crack down on Iranian nationals who have used companies in Dubai to evade those sanctions.

Dubai has become a centre of international focus as a safe haven for Russian oligarchs – and their superyachts and private jets – escaping US sanctions imposed over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

While Dubai has a "freewheeling" reputation within the UAE, US sanctions against international criminal figures coming on top of criticism of the Emirate as a "weak link" in enforcing sanctions against Russia will increase pressure on the UAE to act, said one US expert.

Adam M Smith, a lawyer and former adviser to the US treasury department's OFAC, said the UAE's central bank, based in Abu Dhabi, would not want to "cross wires" with central banks in the US, Europe or elsewhere, nor would the UAE want a rogue reputation as "a scofflaw".

“Even if Dubai may want to be a bit more open, my guess is Abu Dhabi will want to maintain more control in order to avoid further black eyes,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent