Like entrepôts past – think Casablanca, Panama, Miami – Dubai naturally attracts smugglers. Its strategic location between Europe and Asia adds to its appeal. And while the authorities have taken steps to nab contraband, especially when pressured from abroad, they are reluctant to slow with paperwork the speed of business that makes Dubai, Dubai.
"As long as the illicit activities do not interfere with the safety and security of the hub, they can coexist," says Tarik Yousef, an expert in Arab world economies and dean of the Dubai School of Government. "They can even take advantage of the hub."
Many do. Smuggling, along with financial crimes, make up "the majority of serious criminal activity" in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to a 2008 report by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global monitoring body.
That includes whiskey bottles clinking in their crates as they're trucked across the desert into teetotal Saudi Arabia. Russian women are flown here and forced to work as prostitutes. Suitcases of cash from the Afghan drug trade are carried in to be laundered.
And all manner of goods banned by the UN for Iranian use are packed and sailed across the Gulf – a trade sure to reenter the global spotlight once new sanctions pass, possibly within weeks.