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Investigation 30 Jan 15

Serbia Quietly Grants Citizenship to Abbas Rival

Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a broker for Gulf investment in the Balkans, his family and five of his supporters become Serbian citizens as power struggle with President Mahmoud Abbas escalates.

Ivan Angelovski, Aida Ramusovic and Lawrence Marzouk
BIRN
Belgrade, Podgorica, London

 

Aleksandar Vucic, Mohammed Dahlan and Milo Djukanovic at Vucic's home. 

Photo by:inlightpress

Serbia’s government has quietly granted citizenship to Mohammed Dahlan, a key rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and adviser to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, can reveal.

Dahlan, his wife and four children, a nephew  and five key political supporters were all granted citizenship between February 2013 and June 2014, according to documents from the state’s Official Gazette analysed by BIRN.

The government is able to grant citizenship during closed cabinet sessions to foreigners when it is deemed to serve “state interests” without offering any detailed public explanation.

Dahlan is credited with facilitating Abu Dhabi’s promised investment of billions of euros in Serbia. However, the government in Belgrade has refused to explain whether this is the reason it has gifted citizenship to 12 Palestinians since 2013, all of whom are linked to the powerful politician.

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestianian President

Photo by: Wikipedia

Seasoned Middle East observers have suggested that Dahlan could be planning to use Serbia as a base to launch his leadership challenge against Abbas, the current Palestinian Authority, PA, leader.

Dahlan, a former PA security chief, was seen by many as Yasser Arafat’s heir apparent but lost out to Abbas. He was kicked out of the political party Fatah in 2011 after Abbas accused him of corruption and even hinted he may have been involved in Arafat’s death.

The PA launched a defamation action against Dahlan, then living in exile in the United Arab Emirates, UAE, after he criticised Abbas’ leadership and PA security forces in the West Bank. He was sentenced to a two-year jail term in March 2014 following his conviction in absentia.

Thousands of his supporters took to the streets of Gaza in December to protest the opening of another court case against Dahlan, this time for alleged embezzlement of $22m. There have been further clashes in Gaza this week between Fatah supporters and Dahlan’s backers.

A spokesman for President Abbas told BIRN it also had evidence that Dahlan had ordered the murders of six fellow Palestinians, allegations which are under investigation by the prosecution.

He said: “This is not talk, there is a case in court with all the witnesses and documents."

Dahlan has publicly denied the accusations but refused to respond to questions sent to him by BIRN. His backers dismiss the court cases as nothing more than politically-motivated “show trials”.

Mohammed Dahlan's rented villa in Belgrade

BIRN can also reveal that Dahlan is now renting a luxurious villa in an exclusive Belgrade neighbourhood favoured by diplomats.

Until recently the home of former Serbian President Boris Tadic, the villa has seen its security beefed up ahead of Dahlan’s arrival in Belgrade.

Citizenship ‘a sign of gratitude’

The Serbian government has refused to respond to requests from BIRN for an explanation of why it has granted citizenship to Dahlan, his family and five supporters.

However, Dusan Simeonovic, former ambassador to Egypt and Palestine, told BIRN the move was “clearly a sign of gratitude for Dahlan’s role in implementing investments from the UAE”.

Bypassing the standard naturalisation process, the government can grant citizenship to an individual if it is deemed to be in Serbia’s national interest, according to the Law on Citizenship.

Under this system, a minister puts forward a name which is then voted on in a closed government session. The decision is signed off by the prime minister or his deputy and published in the Official Gazette.

This process has attracted controversy on a number of occasions, including last year when Sergey Kurchenko, a Ukrainian businessmen under EU sanctions, was made a Serbian national following a government decision. The Serbian interior minister did not respond to our requests for confirmation of media reports that Kurchenko’s citizenship had been revoked following the outcry.

This system has been used 52 times in the past five years, most often to grant passports to musicians and sportsmen and women.

BIRN was unable to find any evidence that those granted citizenship in Dahlan’s entourage, bar Dahlan himself and his nephew Shadi, had any connection to Serbia or had even visited the country.

All are, however, closely linked to Dahlan (see infographic).

A worldwide study of citizenship rules reveals schemes to hand out passports for “special achievements” are common.

But the research by the European Union Democracy Observatory on Citizenship also shows the vast majority of countries apply other criteria, such as residency, a clean criminal record or language proficiency.

Serbia’s position differs in that politicians can approve citizenship as long as it serves the “state interest”, with no further conditions.

Montenegro dropped its plans to award citizenship in exchange for a 500,000 euro investment under EU pressure and instead runs a similar programme to Serbia.  

A spokesman for the Palestinian President told BIRN that they will be writing to the Serbian prime minister and president calling for the government to “stop” its decision to award citizenship to Dahlan and his cohort.

He said: “According to all national and international rules, when somebody wants to take a passport from another country, they [the government] should check to make sure that they have a clean file and clean history and not just give it. They have not asked the Palestinian side about their history or whether they are criminals or not.”

Dahlan’s Montenegrin citizenship

Dahlan’s interest in the Balkans appears to have blossomed in 2006 when he, his elder brother Abdrabou and nephews began to open real estate and construction firms in Serbia and Montenegro.

According to company registry documents obtained by BIRN, Abdrabou Dahlan established the real estate company Alfursan in 2006 in Belgrade before selling some of his shares to his sons, including Shadi Dahlan.

Shadi also runs a business in Montenegro owned by his uncle Mohammed called Levant International.

Little is known of their business activities in the Balkans. They have made no public statements and documents lodged at company registers in both countries, which BIRN has collected, show that while the firms have significant capital their turnover is minimal.

In addition, members of the Abu Dhabi royal family began visiting Montenegro in 2008 looking for investment opportunities and, according to press reports at the time, Dahlan was among the entourage.

In 2010, Dahlan and his wife were granted Montenegrin citizenship, although his children were refused it on the grounds that economic dependants do not form part of the “state interest” scheme. Official documents show that the gift was at the behest of Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has described Dahlan as a “friend” in parliament.

In his letter recommended Dahlan, his wife and four children for citizenship, Djukanovic wrote that the Palestinian was responsible for building bridges with Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan royal family and “for their arrival in Montenegro”, which brought significant investment.
“Mr Dahlan is one of the most respected people in that part of the world [Middle East]  and therefore I think we should grant him and his family Montenegro citizenship,” PM Djukanovic wrote.

Dahlan and Abu Dhabi

Dahlan’s attention then seems to have shifted to Serbia, where he helped forge new diplomatic and economic ties between Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the government – led in July 2012 by socialist Ivica Dacic and his powerful deputy from the Progressives, Aleksandar Vucic, now prime minister.

Tomislav Nikolic and Mohammed Dahlan meet in Belgrade. Photo by :Inlightpress

Dahlan was decorated by President Tomislav Nikolic with the Medal of the Serbian Flag in April 2013 for his role in “the development and strengthening of peaceful cooperation and friendly relations between Serbia and the United Arab Emirates”, according to the decree.

The president’s office refused to elaborate on this when questioned by BIRN, adding only that Dahlan was “a close associate of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed who had contributed to investments from the UAE”.

Vucic and the then finance and economy minister, Mladjan Dinkic, visited Abu Dhabi in October 2012, where they met with the crown prince.

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Dragan Dzajic, Mohammed Dahlan, Aleksandar Vucic and Nebojsa Covic

Photo by:Red Star Belgrade

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed then visited Belgrade in January 2013, when he met Nikolic and took a tour of the Red Star Belgrade stadium with Vucic and Dahlan.

Vucic returned to Abu Dhabi in February and October 2013, as did Dinkic in March 2013.

Serbia opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi in August 2013.

Middle East-Balkans ‘common interests’

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the close relationship between Dahlan, Djukanovic and Vucic emerged in March 2014 on Inlight Press, a pro-Dahlan Arabic news website which was reportedly blocked in the West Bank by Abbas in 2012.

Mohammed Dahlan and Aleksandar Vucic

Photo by: inlightpress

The accompanying news story reported that Dahlan had arrived in Belgrade from Cairo to meet members of the government, two days after Vucic’s Progressives swept to victory in parliamentary elections.

In one photo accompanying the article, he is seen reclining on a sofa with newly-elected Prime Minister Vucic and the Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic. In another photo published in the same article, Dahlan is seen grinning with Vucic.

According to the story, they discussed “common interests” in the Balkans and the Middle East.

This blossoming relationship played a key role in finalising a series of intergovernmental deals signed between Serbia and Abu Dhabi, promising billions of euros of investment through companies connected to the ruling family.

But the deals have proved controversial.

Etihad Airways bought 49 per cent of shares in the airline JAT in 2013, although concerns have been raised about whether the Serbian taxpayer received value for money from the sale of almost half of the state-owned firm.

Al Dahra Agriculture was due to invest 150m euros through state-owned farms, according to a published pre-contract agreement signed with the Serbian government. But, after the deal sparked protests, the Abu Dhabi firm decided to buy a stake in a firm owned by Serbian tycoon Vojin Lazarevic instead.

Other huge deals related to agriculture, arms, electronics and ports have been signed with firms linked to the royal family, according to statements by the Serbian government. A 2.8bn euro real estate project called Belgrade Waterfront, a joint venture between the Serbian government and a Dubai-based firm, has also been announced.

Despite the impressive proposals, little concrete investment has been visible on the ground.

Officials from the United Arab Emirates embassy in Belgrade insist that delays with projects of this scale are normal and that investments will follow.

Dahlan’s future

Palestinians Granted Citizenship

Serbia granted citizenship to Dahlan, his family and five of his political circle in three tranches during 2013 and 2014 as follows:

February 2013:
•    Shadi Dahlan (Dahlan’s nephew)
•    Samir Almassharawi

December 2013:
•    Dahlan himself, his wife and their four children

June 2014:
•    Sufyan Abu Zayda
•    Ziyad Almassharawi
•    Ghassan Jadallah
•    Mohammed Shamia

BIRN attempted to contact all 12 but received no answers.

Source: Serbia’s Official Gazette

Jonathan Schnazer, vice president of Washington DC think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, provided a detailed description of the Dahlan-Abbas conflict in a statement to Congress which cited reports that Dahlan’s assets in Jordan “amounted to USD 14.1 million or more”.

“The allegations of Dahlan’s corruption are not easily refuted,” he wrote in the report. “During the heyday of the Oslo process in the 1990s, he and a cadre of Arafat loyalists controlled Gaza’s border with Israel, extracting taxes from every truck that entered”.

Schnazer also notes that a 118-page report issued by the Abbas-camp alleged Dahlan stole “$300 million in aid from the United States”.

Dahlan has always maintained his innocence but refused to respond to BIRN’s questions sent via his Parisian lawyer Sevag Torossian.

The lawyer told BIRN that the corruption allegations against Dahlan which had been presented to the court amounted to “accounting issues”.

He said: “Concerning the charges and what we heard at the trial, any lawyer or even student in law would have the same question : what the hell does it have to do with “corruption” ?”

The Dedinje Villa

Behind towering security fences and surrounded by cameras, a luxurious, state-owned mansion stands in Belgrade’s high-end Dedinje neighbourhood, once occupied by former Serbian President Boris Tadic.

This was Tadic’s retreat after losing presidential elections to Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia’s Progressive Party candidate, in 2012.

The home is run by Dipos, a state-owned company specialising in renting luxury real estate to diplomatic missions.  

During Tadic’s time there, it was nothing like the fortress it has become since Dahlan agreed to rent it in February 2014. At least 50k euros have been spent improving security measures and renovating the home, including security cameras monitoring surrounding streets, according to documents secured by BIRN.  

Dahlan signed a contract, also obtained by BIRN, with the government agency to rent the villa for 3,600 euros-a-month until 2022. The contract was approved by the Serbian Directorate for Property as the mansion is owned by the state.

It is not known how often Dahlan has stayed there or whether it is his main home.

The home is only two doors away from the new Palestinian embassy, completed in the summer of 2014.

Under communist leader Tito, Yugoslavia maintained close and friendly relations with Palestine and refused to recognise Israel until 1991.The embassy is scheduled to open in the coming months.

He added: “I do not get involved with politics but I do note that he [Dahlan] is the main political opponent and potential successor who is in Mr Abbas’s sights. This is his [Abbas’s] third attack [on Dahlan] which has only one objective: prevent the return of Dahlan to Palestine.”

Grant Rumley, a colleague of Schnazer‘s and an expert in Palestinian affairs, said BIRN’s revelations suggest Serbia may have provided a base for Dahlan from which he can launch his “quest to dethrone Abbas”.

“Abbas knows that Dahlan is his biggest rival, and biggest threat,” he told BIRN.

“That Dahlan would court a country such as Serbia is noteworthy because the Palestinians have had a long and close relationship with the Serbians, and Dahlan might be trying to sway a traditional Abbas ally to his side.

“Having Serbian citizenship has the advantage of giving Dahlan and his entourage another base of operations. The Middle East is turbulent and Dahlan may not always be in the good graces of the UAE, so having a haven in Europe for him and his colleagues strengthens his hand.

“In addition, it also makes it easier for Dahlan to meet with Western and Israeli officials in European capitals, as he has reportedly been doing.”

With Serbian passports, Dahlan and his coterie can take advantage of visa-free travel across the EU, bar the UK and Ireland. The Ministry of Interior refused to tell BIRN whether any of the new citizens had taken up passports.

Internationally-renowned journalist Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine in January about a recent, secret meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Dahlan in Paris.

Did Dahlan travel with his Serbian passport? We may never know, but the fact the question can be posed is remarkable in itself.

This article was produced as part of a programme titled “A Paper Trail to Better Governance”, with funding from the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) and implemented by BIRN. The content does not reflect views and opinions of ADC.

 

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