Citizenship appears to be the newest commodity being snatched up by the super wealthy. Chinese and Middle Eastern businessmen frequently purchase U.S. or Canadian passports. Several years ago, Malta’s government was criticized for setting up a scheme that allowed wealthy foreigners to purchase EU passports for around 546,000 British pounds.
Although these practices may be questionable, gifting passports to wealthy friends and investors is an entirely different, and even more concerning, phenomenon. When individuals pay for their passports, they are still expected to go through numerous background checks to ensure they do not have a criminal record or other troubling histories. When citizenship is handed out as a gift, however, these safeguards may be sidestepped in the interest of strengthening alliances with specific individuals who are seen as strategically useful.
In Serbia, politicians are permitted to extend citizenship to individuals based on their own whims – as long as they claim it is in the “state interest,” no other questions are asked. While it may be assumed these deals come with promises of investment or other strings attached, because they occur behind closed doors, without much fanfare or celebration, citizens are left in the dark about whom their government has welcomed into the fold and why.
Such was the case when Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian opposition leader with a controversial background, was handed a Serbian passport.
In February 2015, the Associated Press reported that Ivica Dačić, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and chairperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), publicly confirmed that his country had granted Dahlan citizenship in 2013. Dahlan’s wife, four children, a relative, and five supporters were also given Serbian passports. A former Fatah party strongman, Dahlan had promised Serbia millions of dollars in investments from the United Arab Emirates, where he had been living in exile since 2011. The Serbian government has refused to confirm whether the investments were the reason he was handed citizenship.
These discoveries have left some Serbs wondering who Mohammed Dahlan really is and what their government wants from him.
The Serbian Connection
In order to understand why a man like Dahlan would be welcomed with open arms into Serbia, it is worthwhile to examine the politics of his Serbian sponsors.
Exactly one year ago, in March 2014, Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolić called an early general election. Aleksandar Vučić, then Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the largest party in parliament, won the elections by a landslide with 49% of the vote. As a result, Vučić was named Prime Minister.
Vučić’s election campaign focused heavily on his ability to draw billions in investments from the UAE. This included a controversial $4 billion development project known as Belgrade On Water, which Vučić has described as “the rebirth of Serbia”, according to Bloomberg Business.
A former nationalist known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – at the time of the conflict, Vučić said that his country would kill 100 Muslims for every Serb who died – Vučić now touts himself as a pro-European politician capable of attracting substantial revenue to cash strapped Serbia through business deals with the UAE’s political leaders. He openly boasts of a close, personal relationship with Abu Dhabi’s crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and in August 2014 secured a one billion dollar loan from the UAE to solve Serbia’s liquidity problems.
UAE companies have also invested in various parts of the Serbian economy, including the privatization of a national airline. Belgrade may soon be home to a looming tower modeled on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Needless to say, maintaining a good relationship with key players from the UAE works in Vučić’s favor.
Dahlan, meanwhile, is one of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s most trusted advisers. After splitting with Fatah in 2011, Dahlan was named a security aid to the UAE government. He has also been placed in charge of UAE-sponsored media efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood, and has often been seen traveling with the Crown Prince on his visits to Egypt and other countries.
The Middle East Eye reported that Vučić’s relationship with the Crown Prince would have been impossible without the help of Dahlan, who helped smooth things over after the UAE became the first Arab country to recognize the independence of Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway province, in 2012. Dahlan has also been credited with facilitating the UAE’s investments in Serbia.
But if UAE investment is as good for Serbia as its leadership claims, then the layers of mystery surrounding many of these business deals appears unwarranted. Dušan Pavlović, an adviser to Serbia’s Minister of Economy from September 2013 to January 2014, told the Middle East Eye that a March 2013 agreement signed between the two governments guarantees all UAE investment deals in Serbia will remain secret from the public.
“This agreement included provisions to overrule some domestic law in Serbia. For example, any investment that comes from the UAE is given priority over local deals,” Pavlović told the news outlet. Some analysts also claim that Abu Dhabi’s leadership is exploiting Serbia’s lax military arms market and export rules to distribute weapons to allies across the Middle East and further its own political agenda.
Since 2013, the year Dahlan was granted citizenship, the Serbian government has prioritized its dealings with the UAE and extended favorable deal terms to UAE investors, including in its arms and farming industries. In one case, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) revealed that the Serbian government paid several times more than its UAE partner for a 51% stake in the company, Air Serbia. While Serbia paid $90 million for 51% of the airline, its partner from the United Arab Emirates paid $40 million for 49%, BIRN reported. Meanwhile, the lucrative Belgrade on the Water project has been handed to a single developer, the Abu Dhabi based company Eagle Hills, without a public tender or competitive design process. Laws have been modified and public money invested to speed up the launch of the unpopular project.
As activists have pointed out, most of these deals are not in the public interest. Vučić and his government have also shown no interest in justifying or highlighting the benefits of these projects to the public. This lack of transparency has been a consistent feature of Vučić’s political rule, according to critics.
So Who Is Mohammed Dahlan, Actually?
Dahlan’s past is perhaps even murkier than Vučić’s. A brief overview of his life shows a man at the center of violent political infighting in the Palestinian territories.
After becoming politically active as a teenager, Dahlan was instrumental in the establishment of the Fatah Youth Movement in Gaza. Between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested eleven times by Israel for his activities with the group and involvement in the first intifada.
Eventually, however, Dahlan became friendly with both Israel and the United States, as reflected innumerous reports about Dahlan negotiating with Israel and cavorting with the CIA. In 2002, former Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer admitted that he had offered Dahlan control of the Gaza Strip to maintain calm along the border. After talks with Dahlan at the White House in July 2003, George W. Bush publicly praised him as “a good, solid leader,” as reported by Vanity Fair. Eventually and unsurprisingly, some Palestinians began to view Dahlan as a traitor.
Following Hamas’s legislative victory in 2006 and subsequent split between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Dahlan became one of Fatah’s leading figures. As Vanity Fair later revealed, Dahlan had been a key actor in precipitating that split, and had been placed in charge of a U.S. orchestrated plan to remove Hamas from power in Gaza through violent means. When the plan backfired, and Fatah and Hamas severed ties, Dahlan fled Gaza for the safety of the West Bank.
In addition to these shady maneuvering’s, there have also been numerous allegations against Dahlan of abuse of power and corruption.
From 1994-2007, Dahlan served as the Director of the Preventive Security Forces, a group of around 20,000 men trained with help from the CIA. In this role, he was responsible for the arbitrary arrest of hundreds of Palestinians, using especially brutal tactics. Though Dahlan denies any knowledge of these practices, kidnapping and torture of detainees by the security forces was not uncommon. “The only order I gave was to defend ourselves. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t torture, some things that went wrong, but I did not know about this,” he told Vanity Fair.
For a time, Dahlan was seen as the heir apparent to Yasser Arafat, former President of the Palestinian National Authority and leader of Fatah. But, in 2011, Fatah expelled Dahlan from the organization. President Mahmoud Abbas accused him of corruption and insinuated he may have been involved in the death of Arafat, who many believe was poisoned.
It was during this period of turmoil that Dahlan, who was presumably hunting for a safe haven outside the Middle East, began to cultivate relationships in the Balkans. Along with his older brother and nephews, Dahlan set up various companies in Montenegro and Serbia. The details of how these businesses have conducted their activities, remains unknown, however.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, a friend of Dahlan’s, granted him citizenship as early as 2010. Some observers have even alleged that Dahlan’s CIA supporters instructed Djukanović to give him a Montenegrin passport.
When Montenegro’s free press got wind of the news, it spoke out against Dahlan and the government’s decision to give him citizenship. Both the daily newspaper Dan and the independent political weekly, Monitor, wrote extensively about Dahlan’s corrupt dealings with Djukanović. Soon, opposition parties were calling for him to be stripped of his citizenship.
While Dahlan never officially lost his Montenegrin passport, he opted to move to Serbia in 2014, as a result of this pressure. Both Djukanović and Vučić have acknowledged that the Montenegrin Prime Minister recommended to UAE officials that they invest in Serbia. It was soon after Djukanović made this suggestion that Dahlan received his Serbian passport.
In April 2013, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, a key ally of Vučić, also awarded Dahlan the Medal of the Serbian Flag “for his contribution to peaceful cooperation and friendly relations between Serbia and the UAE,” The Middle East Eye reported. In August of that year, Serbia opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi.
Unlike in Montenegro, freedom of the press has been circumscribed in Serbia in the year since Vučić’s came to power. Websites critical of the regime have been removed or hacked, and bloggers and social media users have been questioned by police. The mainstream media is overwhelmingly supportive of Vučić, either due to censorship or self-censorship. This situation ensures that “new citizens” like Dahlan can mostly remain under the radar as long as they enjoy Vučić ‘s support and friendship.
Dahlan’s Life in Serbia
The amount of time Dahlan actually spends in Serbia remains unclear, as do the details about his activities in the country. Some analysts have suggested, for instance, that Dahlan is planning to use Serbia as a base from which to challenge Abbas’s leadership over the Palestinian Authority.
As it seems improbable he will return to the West Bank any time soon, and, without much pressure coming from the country’s media, Dahlan will likely be traveling to and from Serbia for some time to come. It also does not appear Vučić and his team will abandon their commitment to promoting UAE business deals in Serbia anytime soon.
It would seem, then, that everyone is happy – except, of course, for those Serbian citizens who are wondering what exactly is going on.