Investigators around the world have been searching for sanctions-hit Russian oligarchs’ yachts. One has been hiding in plain sight.
Italian authorities in March impounded Russian coal and fertilisers magnate Andrey Melnichenko’s $600mn Sailing Yacht A after Russia invaded Ukraine. Another yacht, the $300mn Philippe Starck-designed Motor Yacht A, has been anchored for weeks in the port of Ras al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates.
By placing his yacht in the UAE, Melnichenko has put it beyond the reach of western governments enforcing sanctions on those deemed supportive of President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Its presence is a symbolic reminder of the Gulf monarchy’s ambivalence towards western sanctions on Russia, allies of Putin and the wealthy businessmen who have often benefited from ties to the state.
While the UAE government is trying to enhance measures against money laundering to exit a global dirty-money watchdog’s watchlist, the economic foundation of cities such as Dubai has long been based on welcoming flows of assets and people.
“Given its non-enforcement of western sanctions, the dilemma for the UAE is how to sustain its place as an open destination for capital while also appearing to be a good global citizen,” said one compliance professional. “It’s a tricky balancing act.”
The government of the Isle of Man said it had in March deregistered Melnichenko’s yachts, including Motor Yacht A, because of western sanctions, saying, “we will continue to act with appropriate robustness should the situation warrant it”. Marine locator services placed Motor Yacht A off the Maldives in March. The Financial Times then saw the yacht on April 18. On Saturday it remained moored opposite Ras al-Khaimah’s city-centre fish market.
Businessmen in the UAE say Melnichenko, who denies affiliations to the Kremlin, held meetings there in April, but the tycoon has since returned to Moscow. A representative of Melnichenko, who has been placed under sanctions by the EU and UK as well as Switzerland and Australia, referred questions on the yacht to a lawyer who declined to comment. UAE authorities in Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Abu Dhabi declined to comment.
European officials say they have raised concerns with Emirati counterparts that the UAE could become a financial haven for Russians placed under western sanctions. “We don’t want our allies to become facilitators for the Putin regime,” said one.
The UAE government has said it is maintaining a neutral course through the war, calling for an end to hostilities and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Abu Dhabi, which has developed closer ties with Moscow in recent years, has also assured its allies that sanctions-hit entities will not be able to operate in the UAE. The Gulf monarchy, which has long argued that it is not compelled to enforce other nations’ sanctions, is keen to maintain its historical role as an apolitical territory focused on business.
Thousands of wealthy, non-sanctions-hit Russians have relocated to the UAE to escape economic uncertainty and political instability at home, even though they sometimes struggle to access the financial system. “Big banks are more cautious but smaller banks are offering help to those wishing to relocate. It’s just taking a lot of time,” said a Russian businessman.
Very wealthy Russians generally find financial institutions accommodating. Most of the wealthy elite have second passports from countries that sell nationality, such as Malta or Portugal, which facilitates the opening of new accounts with lenders that are warier of Russian passport holders.
Others have turned to alternative routes, such as cryptocurrencies and hawala, or informal money exchange services. The cost of this service has risen from 1 per cent of the transaction value to 5 per cent since the war broke out as demand surges, said one person aware of the trades.
Many in the UAE see a hypocrisy in western concern over the presence of the yacht and the Russians building new lives there. “So it was OK for London to take all the oligarch money but not for Dubai?” asked one lawyer.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Riga