There was never a real estate boom like it: In May 2002, Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoom, issued a decree granting foreigners lifetime rights to buy, sell and lease property in specifically designated areas of the oil-rich emirate.
The result was a scramble of buying, selling and lending in which huge profits were to be made. Dubai witnessed the construction of some of the most extravagant buildings and housing developments in the world. Buyers were borrowing as much as 90 percent of a property’s value just to have a piece of the real estate pie.
Dubai promotional video
“I was one of the flags of our nation here,” Shahin tells MEV by phone from his cell in Dubai’s Central Prison. He is allowed several minutes of phone calls per week, and his conversations, he says, are monitored by computer. “I mean, I was what you might call in the States a ‘hot shot.’ I had taken a company that was established with $5 million and converted the $5 million to $5 billion—in three years. I was a clean, upstanding citizen, never an issue, socially active here…”
Then came the economic tsunami of 2007, which ultimately struck Dubai. The building market sagged, then crashed. Projects worth billions of dollars were either postponed or cancelled altogether; property values plummeted as much as 60 percent. Some very big money was lost.
“Unfortunately,” Shahin says, “Dubai had very ambitious plans, and a lot of the incoming cash from the real estate boom was not being reinvested in Dubai, it was being reinvested in other industries and other countries. So they couldn’t then back up this drop and then, like everyone else, they suffered.”
In early 2008, Dubai began an investigation into rumored misuse of funds at banks and some large state-run property companies – including Deyaar. Shahin was arrested in March 2008 for alleged corruption.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘arrest,’” Shahin says. “I was abducted. I went to visit the Ruler’s Court Audit Department, and then four civilians took my mobile and switched it off, and blindfolded me, put me in a car, and I disappeared for 17 days, not allowed to contact my family, the embassy, nobody.”
Shahin says he was held in solitary confinement, deprived of food and threatened with instruments of torture. He says authorities warned him they might jail his wife and place his children in shelters. He has never been formally charged, nor has he been tried. On May 14, Shahin began a hunger strike.
Shahin denies any wrongdoing. “When I ran the company, it had a turnover of roughly two billion dollars of annual sales of properties. Being the CEO, I had certain authorities to exercise to ensure the company met its objectives. Among my responsibilities was signing off on sales discounts after a Delegation of Authority signed by the board of directors.”
Shahin says that during the “boom,” the company would give “roughly 4 percent discounts” on some transactions – these, in the end, amounted to about $50 million total.
“[Dubai prosecutors] say, ‘these discounts, they were not called for, so now you owe us $50 million,’” Shahin says. “But it goes beyond that. It goes to the level where employee bonuses and awards, now I’m being charged for these awards and bonuses, despite the fact that they were signed off by the chairman.”
Furthermore, he says, Ernst & Young, one of the world’s top accounting firms, served as Deyaar’s external auditors . “Ernst & Young, year after year, have issued a clean bill of health, a clean balance sheet, a clean P & L (profit and loss statement).”
Looking to Washington for help
“He has not been on trial,” Jatras says. “He has been run to the court over 200 times on minor procedural issues, and in only 17 cases did these hearings last more than 3 minutes.
Jatras says Shahin has never been given an opportunity to present evidence and disprove the charges against him. “On at least three occasions, he has been – quote – granted bail on one charge and then immediately re-arrested as he was leaving the courtroom and incarcerated again on a different charge.”
Dubai law allows prosecutors to hold a prisoner for 21 days without filing any charges – and courts can grant indefinite 30-day extensions, as long as an investigation continues. Authorities have extended Shahin’s detention several times.
“After fourteen months in detention,” says Shahin, “I tried to persuade the prosecutor to charge me and put the case forward to court…he did not like that, and he said, ‘Listen, I’ll hold you as long as I want.’”
So, Shahin and his defense team went public. “At that time, the only irregularity they were talking about was the $100,000 bonus that was paid to me by the chairman,” Shahin says. “Taking my plea public in the U.S., we launched a media campaign and we did a press conference, then charges started mounting up and they start trumping one charge after the other and one number after the other.”
Today, according to local media, pending charges include the abuse of public office, breach of trust, swindling, defrauding, embezzling, forgery and using fake documents and divulging company secrets.
Jatras says Shahin’s legal team is asking for two things: “One is that his government (the U.S.) show some interest in him. The other is either to give him a fair bail and release him so he can see his family and prepare for his defense, or bring him to trial in an open court where he can answer the charges…if they have evidence against him, [let them] go ahead and bring it.”
“Our U.S. officials,” says Jatras, “they’re all over the world, going to bat for [former Ukrainian prime minister] Yulia Tymoshenko or [blind dissident] Chen Guangcheng in China, who are not even Americans, and here’s an American who is being treated this way, and not a peep about them.”
“When it comes to a good customer, a good business partner, a good geopolitical ally, and frankly, some very chummy personal relationship between American and Emirati officials, they don’t want to roil those waters.” – James Jatras
Zack Shahin defense team video on FreeZack.com
On May 31, U.S. consular officials – including Consul General Justin Siberell – visited Shahin in prison, where, according to his website, he told them, “You spend time aiding people in China, Sri Lanka, the Ukraine, etc., why don’t you spend as much time on me? It would take 30 seconds for someone higher up in [the] State Department to talk to someone higher up in the UAE to end this.”
The U.S. has expressed concern about Shahin’s case. Last week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, “There are several outstanding cases against him. We want to see those consolidated so that he’s able to defend himself more effectively. And we’ve also urged them to permit his release on bail.”
In all, 20 foreigners are on hunger strikes in Dubai prisons; hailing from the United Kingdom, other Arab nations, India and Pakistan, many of them for bouncing checks. During the boom, post-dated checks were commonly used for security in large property deals. After the collapse of the financial market, many were unable to make good on these checks. Unlike Shahin, says his lawyer, these men have been convicted and sentenced.
Little US can do
The U.S. State Department clearly outlines what it can and cannot do for citizens jailed abroad. It warns U.S. citizens that when traveling or living abroad, they are subject to the laws of that country, which may differ from U.S. laws. It can monitor prison conditions to ensure American prisoners are treated fairly. Consular officers can visit detainees, facilitate communication with family back home and transport of food and clothing.
However, its online advisory on travel to the UAE, the State Department warns that a US passport won’t help anyone avoid arrest or prosecution, and that the US government cannot protect or intervene on behalf of anyone accused of violating foreign government laws whether intentionally or by negligence.
It recently updated the notice to include these additional warnings: People breaking the law in the UAE may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned or prevented from traveling for extended periods of time, that crimes of fraud—even passing bad checks or not paying hotel bills, can result in imprisonment; and bail is generally not available to non-residents of the UAE.
In addition to refusing food, Shahin is refusing medications he takes for cardiac and other health problems. He says he is aware of the risks to his well-being. But he’d rather “go home in a box” than stay in a legal limbo.
MEV contacted the UAE Embassy in Washington requesting comment on the Shahin case. The Embassy declined, instead directing us to contact Dubai Police and Prosecutors, which we did. To date, we have not received a response to our inquiries.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.