Extensive recent research efforts have helped us understand who owns financial assets in major tax havens. But real estate has been a major blindspot. This is now starting to change.
In the new research paper “Who Owns Offshore Real Estate? Evidence from Dubai", Skatteforsk-researchers Annette Alstadsæter, Bluebery Planterose, Gabriel Zucman and Andreas Økland have gotten access to a unique dataset capturing ownership of about 800,000 properties in Dubai. These data were provided by confidential sources to the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a Washington DC based non-profit organization dedicated to analysis and reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide.
They use this dataset to document patterns in cross-border real estate investments.
The objective is not to analyze individual cases, but to provide a quantitative, anonymized study of Dubai real estate. Their main contribution, the authors write, is to estimate the value of aggregate real estate owned in Dubai by country, and to analyze country-level patterns, all of which are available here: https://gabriel-zucman.eu/who-owns-offshore-real-estate/
Their main findings:
1. Offshore real estate in Dubai is large: at least USD 146 billion in foreign wealth is invested in the Dubai property market. This is twice as much as real estate held in London by foreigners through shell companies.
2. Geographical proximity and historic ties are key determinants of foreign investments in Dubai. About 20% of offshore Dubai real estate is owned by investors from India and 10% by investors from the United Kingdom; other large investing countries include Pakistan, Gulf countries, Iran, Canada, Russia, and the United States.
3. These patterns hold when focusing on the most affluent neighborhoods, with the main difference that Indian investments become relatively smaller and Russian investments larger.
4. A number of conflict-ridden countries and autocracies have large holdings in Dubai relative to the size of their economy, equivalent to 5% - 10% of their GDP. This suggests that the official net foreign asset position of a number of low-income economies is significantly under-estimated.
5. By matching properties owned by Norwegians to administrative tax records in Norway, they find that the probability to own offshore real estate rises with wealth, including within the very top of the wealth distribution. About 70% of Dubai properties owned by Norwegian taxpayers were not reported for tax purposes in 2019.
The authors argue that these findings illustrate the limitations of the current forms of international information exchange and suggest that additional policies - such as information sharing on the owners of real estate - may be required to create transparency and curb tax evasion through offshore financial centers.
Dubai is one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates and its largest city. It is the economic and financial center of the United Arab Emirates (The New York Times 2022). The emirate has more than three million inhabitants, only 8% of whom are Emirati nationals, according to official statistics.
In spite of joining the Common Reporting Standard (the international framework for the automatic exchange of bank information), Dubai and the United Arab Emirates are often considered secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens.
The United Arab Emirates ranks tenth in Tax Justice Network's 2020 Financial Secrecy Index and tenth in Tax Justice Network's 2021 Corporate Tax Haven Index. It is also one of 23 countries listed on the 2022 list of jurisdictions “under increased monitoring" (often referred to as the grey list) by the Financial Action Task Force, the intergovernmental organization in charge of combatting money laundering.