Businessman Oussama El Omari fled the UAE after being caught up in a bitter succession dispute in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Now he fights to clear his name and seeks to warn the world of the dangers of working and investing in the Gulf emirate.
The UAE, like many of its neighbors, has a reputation as a booming economy, attractive to investors and professionals from around the globe. While this may be true for some, this glamorous facade conceals the dangers of investing and working in a country lacking in transparency and with little if any due process. In this series, Inside Arabia investigates the darker side of the UAE, exposing grave injustices visited upon individuals. One such individual is U.S. citizen Oussama El Omari.
In the year 2000, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi, ruler of the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), appointed his son Faisal to oversee the newly created Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone Authority (RAKFTZA) in order to develop the then barren desert town.
Sheikh Faisal hired El Omari to lead RAKFTZA as its Chief Executive Officer in 2004, successfully bringing investors and businesses into the zone. Throughout his tenure as CEO, investment in the emirate skyrocketed.
Caught in a Royal Power Grab
El Omari’s troubles began with the death in 2010 of Sheikh Saqr, who had been the world’s longest serving ruler. Despite the fact that Faisal was first in line to take power, his brother Saud quickly seized control of RAK, following a smear campaign against Faisal, described by El Omari as “a scorched-earth succession battle.” Saud has long been notorious following his arrest in Minnesota on charges of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in 2005.
After his father’s death, Saud accused his brother of mismanaging RAKFTZA and alleged that the senior staff, including El Omari, were guilty of embezzlement and breach of trust, based on little or no evidence. El Omari was among the many employees subsequently fired in 2012 and 2013.
“I wasn’t told why I had been fired, and when I sought compensation I was owed, the request was denied, also without explanation,” El Omari later wrote.
“Lawyers I hired in the UAE made no progress when I sought legal redress in the courts. Those efforts appear to have engendered a backlash.”
Unilaterally nullifying most of the pending investment agreements entered into under Faisal’s rule, Sheikh Saud systematically impugned the name of anyone who had worked under his brother, responding to those such as El Omari who tried to rebut the accusations by levying criminal charges.
Sheikh Saud even targeted relatively low-level RAKFTZA employees such as Indian lawyer Johnson George, whose story (previously told in this series) is perhaps even more egregious. George has received multiple jail sentences, despite the fact that he held no position of authority and was merely employed to manage RAKFTZA contracts.
After Saud’s power grab, his brother, Sheikh Faisal, was placed under house arrest and El Omari and his staff were told not to contact him, despite the fact that he had been their direct supervisor.
As CEO of RAKFTZA, El Omari found himself directly in the line of fire of criminal accusations. “This is how quickly accolades can turn into accusations in the UAE,” says Radha Sterling, CEO of Detained in Dubai.
EL Omari saw no option but to flee and fight the charges in the US courts from where he now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. El Omari was convicted in absentia in the UAE of “embezzlement and abuse of position.”
UAE does not afford normal due process or the presumption of innocence to those accused of crimes and nor do charges have to be substantiated based upon the traditional evidentiary requirements of courts of law.
Remarkably, he claims that Sheikh Faisal has sent him funds to help in his legal defense.The accusations would normally be highly unlikely to hold water given that the RAKFTZA accounts had recently been audited and approved by auditors such as Price Waterhouse and Deloitte. However, UAE does not afford normal due process or the presumption of innocence to those accused of crimes and nor do charges have to be substantiated based upon the traditional evidentiary requirements of courts of law. Moreover, one’s family can also become a target of coercion. El Omari’s disabled brother, who still lives in RAK, was denied an exit visa to leave the UAE, simply because of his relationship to Oussama.
Every foreigner among the senior staff [of the Trade Zone Authority] has either been jailed or is facing charges in the UAE.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, El Omari said: “What foreign investors and employees are not aware of is that it can be very dangerous for them to be the victims of such conflicts. You can face wrong accusations, imprisonment, loss of financial investments, etc. Every foreigner among the senior staff [of the Trade Zone Authority] has either been jailed or is facing charges in the UAE; all so Sheikh Saud could justify his grab for power to unseat his brother as Crown Prince by means of a phoney anti-corruption campaign.”
The CFO of the Free Zone, Mohan Das, currently sits in prison. The senior legal advisor at the time of El Omar’s dismissal, Jihad Kuzmar, is a Canadian citizen. He was also jailed and is now rumored to be dead. It is possible that El Omari would have met a similar fate had he stayed in the UAE.
Emirati national Maryam Al Murshidi, RAKFTZA’s former Deputy Director, was also imprisoned, according to El Omari. He says she was “tortured for years by interrogators and finally acquitted. All that happened to her [was] just because she was working for RAKFTZA and close to Faisal.”
“Ismat Elassi, who is Canadian-Lebanese, is also imprisoned as I understand it,” El Omari told Inside Arabia. “Anyone who did not switch loyalty to Saud and turn against Faisal was a target of false accusations to justify Saud taking over everything.” A number of other people with links to the case, are also currently in detention. El Omari claims he has been “victimized as a scapegoat” in the family spat between Sheikh Saud and Sheikh Faisal.
Flagged with a Red Notice
El Omari is also engaged in a legal battle against Interpol, which he accuses of helping the UAE take revenge against its political rivals. Interpol issued a “Red Notice” against El Omari, which is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant. Interpol issues red notices to alert international law enforcement agencies to seek the location and arrest of a “wanted” person for the purpose of extradition. Countries can request, without meeting any burdens of proof, that an individual be added to the list.
As a result of the Red Notice, when returning to the U.S. and passing through customs at JFK airport on July 31, 2016, El Omari was stopped and questioned. According to El Omari, customs officers did not detain him, but told him that he “must have problems with the UAE” and to “be careful.”
Interpol red notices are treated as tantamount to arrest warrants in many U.S. states. This particular notice against El Omari was issued in secret after the new Sheikh fired El Omari and his co-workers, El Omari claims. In an editorial for the Washington Post, El Omari asserted that authoritarian regimes abuse the red notice process to harass political opponents. He says that the process has “ruined [his] life.”
El Omari’s piece in the Washington Post drew a response letter to the editor from the RAK Media Office that read: “Oussama El Omari portrayed himself as the innocent victim of an abusive international arrest warrant issued by the United Arab Emirates. Nothing could be further from the truth.” It went on to state that “Interpol red notices are necessary to bring individuals such as Mr. El Omari to justice.”
El Omari now has filed a legal complaint against Interpol in U.S. federal district court seeking $1.9 million in damages and other relief. The complaint states: “It is only because the United States does not have an extradition treaty with the UAE that plaintiff was not arrested upon his arrival at JFK Airport and delivered to the UAE.”
Being subject to this Red Notice has greatly restricted his professional life. El Omari is unable to leave the United States for fear he will be extradited to the UAE. He also cannot visit his family in his native country of Morocco. El Omari told Inside Arabia that his elderly parents are in poor health and that he has given his family minimal information about his situation in order to protect them. To date, El Omari’s lawsuits have been denied on grounds of sovereign immunity (as the defendants are government officials) and his petition for a writ of certiorari to appeal his case to the US Supreme Court has been denied.
“Once you’re flagged with a red notice, getting it removed is extremely difficult,”
“Once you’re flagged with a red notice, getting it removed is extremely difficult,” El Omari explains. “Interpol refused my request, saying it is not the organization’s role to assess countries’ law enforcement or judicial systems. I was also advised by Interpol that the UAE had said I was free to appeal the conviction for my supposed crimes. Based on what I knew from the experience of others who have run afoul of the Emirates, I regarded the offer as an attempt to lure me back to the UAE, where I might be imprisoned.”
Oussama El Omari’s story, like the others in this series, highlights the dangers of working and investing in the UAE.
“I want people to be aware of what can happen to them if they go to this country and get on the wrong side of things,”
“I want people to be aware of what can happen to them if they go to this country and get on the wrong side of things,” he told Inside Arabia.
El Omari, like so many others, is a citizen of a powerful western country, and yet this has not sufficed to prevent him from being harmed by false charges and abuse of process.
“I want people to understand that not even their native countries will help them,” he says. What happened to El Omari can happen to anyone. “My message to anyone who wants to invest or work in the UAE is please be careful,” El Omari told Inside Arabia. “And do not go to RAK at all, even as a tourist.”