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My Time with a Dubai Drug Kingpin

My Time with a Dubai Drug Kingpin
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The wild story of my trip to Al Awir prison to meet one of Europe’s notorious drug kingpins.

Welcome to Whale Hunting, a weekly newsletter delving into the hidden worlds of wealth and power. On Tuesday, Georgia Gee explored how Dubai has become a haven for criminals, including some of the world's scariest drug kingpins (cross-posted from Gateway). Today, I'll share my own story of running into one of the U.K.'s worst heroin smugglers in Dubai (one of his underlings put in his finger in my eye to explain how he'd once popped someone's eyeball out). Tomorrow, you'll hear from Georgia again with updates on the Isabel Dos Santos case and Interpol.  – Bradley

Many moons ago I was a reporter for The National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. This was in the 2008-2011 period, the worst days of the global financial crisis. When all of us journalists arrived there, the UAE was booming in an alarming way. People would stand in a queue for hours to buy an apartment in a building that hadn't even been constructed yet – and if they wanted, they could sell it to someone else 20 people back in the line for a 5% or 10% profit. Of course, I later learned that's a prime money-laundering environment.

Of course, the credit crunch eventually hit Dubai, too, and businessmen started bouncing checks. The problem is that in Dubai, there was no way to go bankrupt. If you bounced a check, you went to prison and couldn't really get out until you found a way to pay off your debts. In the course of writing about some prominent cases of people fleeing the country, rather than face jail time, I started getting tips about businessmen languishing in Al Awir Prison in Dubai.

I remember distinctly how I ended up spending time with some of the scariest drug dealers I've ever met... I got a call from the wife of a German businessman called Thomas Bender, saying her husband was suffering from a misunderstanding about his business. She wanted me to go see him in prison and write about his case. As we agreed to follow up, she mentioned that a man called R. would call me to help faciliate my prison visit. I thought R. was a former work colleague of Bender's, so I called him up and arranged to meet in the lobby of a Dubai hotel to discuss the logistics of my trip. My colleague Asa was supposed to join me but he couldn't make it, so it was just me and R.

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