Dubai unlocked: Inside the secret billionaire hideaways

Billionaires

Forbes investigated and mapped out the multimillion-dollar homes of CZ, Mukesh Ambani and the emirate’s other ultra-rich property owners.
JAMES O’BRIEN/OCCRP

In December 2023, Binance founder Changpeng Zhao asked the judge in his money laundering case in the U.S. District Court of Seattle if he could return to his home in Dubai while awaiting sentencing.

The request was rejected, but when Zhao concludes his four-month prison sentence later this year, the crypto mogul is likely to return to the Middle Eastern emirate.

No wonder. While it was well known CZ owned an apartment in Dubai, the details have been kept under wraps, until now.

Through corporate filings for Binance subsidiaries in Ireland, Forbes had previously linked Zhao to a 429-square-foot studio apartment in a 23-story building on the dusty edges of Dubai—an unlikely home for a tycoon worth $33 billion.

More recently, Forbes dug into dozens of property records in Dubai and matched them with information from corporate filings for Binance entities in Malta.

That ultimately uncovered Zhao’s actual Dubai home, an 11,600-square-foot, six-bedroom apartment in the 118, a luxury residential tower in the heart of downtown, which he purchased for $13.5 million in October 2021.

The Palm Jumeirah, a 2,200-square-mile artificial archipelago shaped like a palm tree in the Persian Gulf. OLE MARTIN WOLD

Zhao isn’t the only billionaire who’s recent purchases of Dubai real estate Forbes has investigated.

In 2022, Mukesh Ambani—Asia’s richest person—spent a combined $238 million on two villas on Palm Jumeirah, an exclusive palm-tree-shaped archipelago of artificial islands, with both purchases breaking the record for the most expensive home sale in Dubai.

Documents seen by Forbes reveal the staggering size of the properties for the first time: Ambani bought the first, a 27,544-square-foot villa, in March 2022; he then bought a 59,570-square-foot home down the road seven months later.

Both were acquired through two offshore entities, including one tied to his publicly traded conglomerate Reliance Industries.

Forbes found that one billionaire, Vinod Adani, owns far more properties than was previously known: 17 personally plus one held by his wife, Ranjanben, and two via Dubai-based Adani Global FZE.

The older brother of Gautam Adani (once briefly the world’s third-richest person) Vinod has an estimated $22.2 billion fortune thanks to his stakes in various companies in the Adani Group, the Indian conglomerate run by his brother, which he holds through offshore entities in Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates.

His most valuable property is a 19,000-square-foot villa in the tony Emirates Hills neighbourhood—touted as the “Beverly Hills of Dubai”—worth an estimated $10 million, but he also owns several apartments as well as a smaller, 8,850-square-foot villa in Jumeirah Park, a neighbourhood that faces the Jumeirah Islands.

In an investigation led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Norwegian outlet E24, Forbes spent months investigating hundreds of Dubai land registry documents to uncover the most comprehensive picture to date of not only which billionaires own properties in the city-state, but what exactly they own.

Altogether, Forbes found 76 properties worth more than $600 million owned by 22 billionaires and their family members. They come from all over the world, hailing from 10 countries on four continents.

The properties were revealed as part of Dubai Unlocked, a collaborative reporting project based on leaked data providing a detailed overview of hundreds of thousands of properties in Dubai and information about their ownership or usage, largely from 2020 and 2022.

The data was obtained by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that researches international crime and conflict.

It was then shared with E24 and OCCRP, which coordinated an investigative project with 74 media outlets in 58 countries.


Dubai digs

Forbes uncovered 76 properties worth more than $600 million owned by 22 billionaires and their family members in Dubai.

Journalists used the data as a starting point to explore the landscape of foreign property ownership in Dubai.

OCCRP, E24, Forbes and their partners spent months verifying the identities of the people who appeared in the leaked data, as well as confirming their ownership status, using official records, open-source research, and other leaked datasets.

Representatives for the billionaires with properties in Dubai either declined to comment or did not respond to Forbes’ questions.

Billionaires’ attraction to Dubai is well known. After all, the emirate has no capital gains or income taxes, making it an attractive place for wealthy investors to park their cash.

Luxury properties there also happen to be good investments: Home prices in the emirate rose by nearly 30% over the past two years, according to Deloitte. The booming market has been a boon for local billionaires too.

Many of the city’s most coveted neighbourhoods, islands and towers were built by developers who have gotten wealthy thanks to the influx of demand for local real estate.

Emaar Properties, the developer behind Emirates Hills, was founded in 1997 by Mohamed Alabbar.

He stepped down as chairman in 2020 and now draws most of his wealth from a 33% stake in publicly traded restaurant operator Americana Restaurants International, worth $2.4 billion.

DAMAC Properties, one of Dubai’s largest developers, is owned by billionaire Hussain Sajwani, who’s net worth has grown by nearly 90% to $5.1 billion over the past two years as his firm’s revenues soared thanks to Dubai’s booming property market.

And Kabir Mulchandani—a newcomer to this year’s World’s Billionaires list—owns FIVE Holdings, which largely owns hotels but also has luxury residences on Palm Jumeirah.

The Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai, the tallest building in the world. OLE MARTIN WOLD

Some billionaires decided to sell their homes in the past two years, cashing out as prices rose. 

Forbes found 15 current and former billionaires who sold 23 properties for more than $90 million over that time period, with sales concentrated in Palm Jumeirah and the surrounding area as well as Emirates Hills and downtown Dubai.

Among the sellers were Greek shipping billionaire Marianna Latsis, who unloaded a 4-bedroom apartment on Palm Jumeirah she’d bought in 2021 for $13.4 million last month, netting nearly $5 million.

Russian insurance mogul and former billionaire Nikolai Sarkisov unloaded three apartments in Jumeirah Beach and downtown Dubai for a combined $17 million last year as well.

Dubai has other benefits too: Until recently, the UAE lacked extradition treaties with many countries. That made it attractive to wealthy individuals who have run into trouble in their home countries. 

Isabel dos Santos, once Africa’s richest woman until she was charged with embezzlement and money laundering in her native Angola in 2020, has been largely based in Dubai since 2017 and owns a property on Jumeirah Beach, according to the investigation. (She denies the charges.)

“Corrupt actors and politically exposed individuals avoiding public accountability use secrecy jurisdictions like the UAE to hide assets in plain sight,” said Maria Giuditta Borselli, a portfolio manager at C4ADS.

Forbes and its partners also found that Nirav Modi, another former billionaire who was arrested in London in March 2019 on charges of criminal conspiracy, fraud and corruption, owned three offices in Dubai’s Gold Tower until he apparently sold them between 2020 and 2023.

And the billionaire former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, famously lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai for 15 years until returning to his home country last August, where he was taken into custody over previous convictions before being released six months later.

His sister Yingluck, another former prime minister, still owns a home in Meydan, a gated community near downtown Dubai, worth an estimated $10 million.

Billionaires in Dubai tend to live in a handful of exclusive neighborhoods. The most popular is Palm Jumeirah, the palm-shaped artificial island with 17 “fronds,” each lined with roughly 150 villas.

Built in the early 2000s by state-owned developer Nakheel, the project required $12 billion and 4.2 billion cubic feet of sand to complete.

It’s home to Ambani’s properties as well as Russian oligarchs and celebrities including soccer legend David Beckham and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.

The nearby Jumeirah Islands—a set of interconnected isles built atop an artificial salt water lake—are home to Telegram founder Pavel Durov, who rents a 15,000-square-foot home for about $1 million a year.

A string of gated communities on the mainland east of Jumeirah—stretching from Emirates Hills in the south, with Arabian Ranches, Dubai Hills and Meydan further north—feature championship golf courses and upscale private schools, making them popular with the three-comma-club.

A 70,000-square-foot, Versailles-themed mansion in Emirates Hills with 700,000 sheets of gold leaf and a 24-carat gold jacuzzi went on the market last summer for $204 million, making it Dubai’s priciest listing. 

Sunil Vaswani, one of the richest people in Dubai, owns an opulent mansion in Emirates Hills with an indoor aviary, nightclub, automatic car wash and casino, plus a smaller home in Arabian Ranches.

Then there’s the skyline in downtown Dubai, studded with skyscrapers and malls surrounding the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on the planet at 2,717 feet.

Zhao owns his apartment in the luxury highrise the 118, composed of only 26 apartments with each unit taking up an entire floor. 

Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the billionaires behind fast-food chain Panda Express, own an office unit in Boulevard Plaza Tower 1, a 37-story building with sloping glass facades across the street from the Burj Khalifa.

And Turkish magnate Ferit Faik Sahenk owns a $5 million, 2,170-square-foot pad in the Burj Khalifa itself.

“The UAE takes its role in protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously. In February, the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF), the global standard-setter for measures to fight money laundering, praised the UAE’s significant progress,” said an official from the UAE’s ministry of foreign affairs. “In its continuing pursuit of global criminals, the UAE works closely with international partners to disrupt and deter all forms of illicit finance. The UAE is committed to continuing these efforts and actions more than ever today and over the longer term.”

Here are ten billionaires with the most valuable properties in Dubai:

Mukesh Ambani

Net worth: $110.2 billion
Source of wealth: Diversified
Citizenship: India
Total estimated property value: $240 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah

M.A. Yusuff Ali & family

Net worth: $7.8 billion
Source of wealth: Diversified
Citizenship: India
Total estimated property value: $70 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina, International City

Shamsheer Vayalil

Net worth: $3.5 billion
Source of wealth: Healthcare
Citizenship: India
Total estimated property value: $68 million
Neighbourhoods: Dubai Hills, Dubai Production City

Suhail Bahwan

Net worth: $1.9 billion
Source of wealth: Diversified
Citizenship: Oman
Total estimated property value: $45 million
Neighbourhoods: Jumeirah Bay Islands, Meydan, Downtown Dubai

Andrei Molchanov & family

Net worth: $1.3 billion
Source of wealth: Construction materials
Citizenship: Russia
Total estimated property value: $23 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah

Vinod Adani

Net worth: $22.2 billion
Source of wealth: Infrastructure, commodities
Citizenship: Cyprus
Total estimated property value: $20 million
Neighbourhoods: Emirates Hills, Jumeirah Lake Towers, Jumeirah Park, Downtown Dubai, Dubai Marina, International City, Dubai Silicon Oasis

Changpeng Zhao

Net worth: $33 billion
Source of wealth: Cryptocurrency exchange
Citizenship: Canada
Total estimated property value: $14 million
Neighbourhoods: Downtown Dubai

Saket Burman

Net worth: $1.5 billion
Source of wealth: Consumer goods
Citizenship: United Kingdom
Total estimated property value: $14 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah

Igor Makarov

Net worth: $2.1 billion
Source of wealth: Investments
Citizenship: Cyprus
Total estimated property value: $11 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah

Naguib Sawiris & family

Net worth: $3.8 billion
Source of wealth: Telecom
Citizenship: Egypt
Total estimated property value: $10 million
Neighbourhoods: Palm Jumeirah

This article was first published on forbes.com and all figures are in USD.

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