FOR DAYS the world wondered where President Ashraf Ghani had gone as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. It was no surprise when it surfaced in the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates) on August 18. Mr Ghani joins a long list of former leaders who have sought refuge in the sunny Gulf state. Pervez Musharraf, a former Pakistani president, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister, and Juan Carlos, the former king of Spain, are supposed to call the United Arab Emirates residence.
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Most of these leaders have left their countries under a cloud. Mr. Musharraf was convicted of treason for having repealed and suspended the Pakistani constitution in 2007. Thaksin Shinawatra was convicted of corruption committed while he was prime minister. Juan Carlos is accused of questionable relations with Saudi Arabia. And Mr Ghani (pictured) has been criticized for cutting and running, though he denies reports he left Kabul with millions of dollars in cash. In a video posted to Facebook, he said he fled “with a set of traditional clothes, a vest and the sandals I was wearing.”
Other Afghan officials were anticipating: they are believed to have moved hundreds of millions of dollars from Kabul to Dubai, the United Arab Emiratesfinancial center of, over the years. A former vice president, Ahmad Zia Masood, has already flown to Dubai with $ 52million (£ 38million) in cash, according to U.S. diplomatic cables. (The average annual income in Afghanistan is around $ 500.) Some of that money was spent on real estate. Sher Khan Farnood, the former chairman of Kabul Bank (and high-stakes poker player), is said to have owned dozens of properties on the luxurious Palm Jumeirah in Dubai – or, at least, his name was on the property records. He granted loans to the associates of Hamid Karzai, a former Afghan president, for the purchase of villas in the emirate. “What I’m doing is not appropriate, not exactly what I should be doing,” Farnood told the Washington post in 2010. “But it’s Afghanistan.”
Equally important is Dubai, which takes a relaxed attitude towards dirty money. The United Arab Emirates scores poorly on a money laundering risk index compiled by the Basel Institute on Governance. This has made it the bane of foreign governments attempting to curb corruption, but a preferred haven for money launderers, arms traffickers and shady officials. Stable and secure, Dubai generally benefits from the flight of capital from the more volatile parts of the region. Afghan officials are not the first to show up with suitcases full of cash. Baathists from Iraq rushed there during the US invasion in 2003. So did relatives of the blood-soaked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2012.
The fugitives and political exiles who were stranded in the United Arab Emirates assume they can live a safe and secluded (often luxurious) life. “There are no paparazzi, no one is going to stalk you,” says a former resident. More importantly, the country is not known for helping international justice prosecutions. Extraditions are rare and prosecutions for financial embezzlement abroad even rarer. The United Arab Emirates has an extradition treaty with Afghanistan, but it may not be honored if the Taliban requests it. South Africa has waited years for the United Arab Emirates to help rescue the Gupta brothers, who are accused of corruption and are believed to be living in Dubai. The countries signed an extradition treaty this year. South Africa is still waiting. (The Guptas deny wrongdoing.)
In exchange for a welcome, the United Arab Emirates often gets influence. Some exiles, like Muhammad Dahlan, a Palestinian, find seats in the court of Muhammad Bin Zayed, the United Arab Emiratescrown prince and de facto ruler. Prince Muhammad “keeps joker playing cards in key geographic areas,” said a former Emirati official. Mr. Dahlan, who has alienated the two main Palestinian parties, helps with diplomacy in Serbia, Ethiopia and Israel. Prominent refugees also broadcast the attractions of the United Arab Emirates. “They serve as a signal that this is, on the whole, a safe haven for the international gray and black markets,” says Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Gulf states. “It provides a flash hole for the world’s shadow elite.”
Sometimes l United Arab Emirates appears to harbor political fugitives and exiled leaders in order to gain leverage or curry favor with America, a key ally. Mr. Ghani, says the Foreign Ministry, was accepted on humanitarian grounds. Fair enough: When the Taliban last seized power, they tortured, castrated and murdered one of his predecessors. His warm welcome can also be a shot at Qatar, a rival of the United Arab Emirates. In the 1990s, the United Arab Emirates was one of only three countries to recognize Taliban rule over Afghanistan (and was rewarded with cash flow from the poppy harvest). But more recently, the Taliban and other Islamist exiles have found a home in Qatar, which the United Arab Emirates accuses of supporting extremism.
Qatar won kudos last year for hosting talks between the United States and the Taliban aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban reverted to their savage ways, that association might sound bad. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates now hosts the last democratically elected president of Afghanistan. Mr. Ghani has brought symbolic value to his new home, at least. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Retirement home for exiles”