Interpol has asked authorities in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to detain the Spanish-Lebanese arms dealer Abdul Rahman El Assir, who has been seen there in the company of Spain’s former monarch Juan Carlos I, police sources told EL PAÍS.
El Assir, 71, is wanted by Spain and France over tax fraud and other crimes, and his whereabouts had been a mystery since 2018, when he failed to show up for trial in Madrid. Two international arrest warrants were issued in 2019.
The friendship between El Assir and Juan Carlos – who himself took up residence in Abu Dhabi in August 2020 to escape a mounting scandal over alleged financial wrongdoing back home – goes back several decades. Eyewitnesses have seen them together at the former king’s private residence on several occasions during the past few months.
Interpol’s “red notice” for the immediate arrest of El Assir was processed by the international law enforcement agency’s Madrid office after Spain’s National Police activated international cooperation channels. The move comes right after EL PAÍS revealed that the arms dealer has been living in the emirate and moving freely about.
Spanish police officials have also contacted the Interior Ministry attaché at the Spanish embassy in Abu Dhabi and tasked him with informing the UAE’s police services about Spain’s interest in seeing the fugitive arrested, according to police sources.
A vanishing act
El Assir, who had been living in Switzerland for years, slipped under the radar on October 4, 2018 when he failed to show up for his own trial in Spain, where he was accused of withholding millions of euros in tax bills. On March 6, 2019 the Madrid Provincial Court issued an arrest warrant after four more no-shows at postponed hearings. The request was communicated to the Sirene Bureau, part of a European information-sharing system that validates alerts and stores the names of people wanted for arrest.
The Sirene system also shows an arrest order against El Assir issued by the French justice system, where he was tried in absentia and convicted over Karachigate, a corruption scandal involving the sale of submarines to Pakistan and the use of illegal commissions to fund the 1995 presidential campaign of then-prime minister Édouard Balladur.
El Assir also left a trail of unpaid debts in Switzerland, where he owes the treasury 2.5 million Swiss francs (€2.4 million), according to the local newspaper Berner Zeitung.
A spokesperson for the Madrid regional high court confirmed that the 2019 arrest warrant against El Assir remains active. “Nothing has changed in the case,” added an official source at the public prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors are seeking an eight-year prison sentence as well as payment of over €100 million in owed taxes and fines.
According to the prosecution, El Assir deliberately failed to report earnings of over €31 million and did not file income tax returns. This saved him over €12 million in 2002 and €2.7 million in 2003.
Eye witnesses say that El Assir has been seen for several months in the company of Spain’s former monarch Juan Carlos at the latter’s residence in Abu Dhabi. These sources said they think that the arms dealer is using the Spanish royal as “a shield” to protect him from his own legal problems. Both the Royal Household and Juan Carlos’ lawyer declined to comment.
Haven for international criminals
The UAE are part of Interpol, just like most Arab countries, but they offer less active cooperation than other members. It is unclear how authorities there will respond to Spain’s request for the arrest of El Assid, said Spanish police sources. Spain presides the European Network of Fugitive Active Search Teams, but it lacks influence in Arab countries.
Dubai, one of the main cities in the UAE, illustrates this lack of cooperation, which has led the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to consider it a haven for international criminals. “For the DEA, it is currently the hiding place of the world’s three top drug traffickers. Cooperation is very difficult,” admitted a police source.
El Assir emerged in the 1980s thanks to his contacts among Spain’s high society and politicians from the Socialist Party (PSOE). His first wife was Samira Khashoggi, daughter of the personal doctor of Saudi Arabia king Abdulaziz Al Saud. She was also the sister of Adnan Khashoggi, an influential Saudi arms trafficker who lived in Marbella and was one of the richest men on the planet when he died in 2017.
Samira was divorced from the Egyptian-born businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, with whom she had a son named Dodi, the boyfriend of Diana Princess of Wales at the time of her death in 1997. The Khashoggi siblings were also related to Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist for The Washington Post who was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 by Saudi government agents.
After divorcing Samira in 1985, El Assir married María Fernández-Longoria, the daughter of the Spanish ambassador in Egypt, and with whom he had three children. Thanks to his friendship with Juan Carlos I, he was invited to the wedding of then-Prince Felipe de Borbón (now King Felipe VI) and Letizia Ortiz.