DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On a clear morning in late October, the jewel-blue hull of the Madame Gu, one of the world’s most luxurious superyachts, gleamed, its aluminum rails shimmering in the sun. Workers on the pier said they had recently seen people painting, cleaning and generally keeping the ship with its helipad and six guest staterooms in pristine condition.
In past years, such a scene would not have been noteworthy. Many superyachts come and go from Dubai’s Mina Rashid Marina, best known as the home of the Queen Elizabeth 2, the trans-Atlantic ocean liner-turned-hotel that dominates the waterfront here.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine has turned a routine tableau into a diplomatic battleground between the United States and the United Arab Emirates, an important U.S. ally that has established itself as a haven for Russian money and assets out of the reach of U.S. sanctions.
The $156 million Madame Gu epitomizes the problem. In June, the United States designated the vessel, which is linked to sanctioned Russian steel magnate and lawmaker Andrei Skoch, as blocked property. That means the yacht cannot use U.S. companies for its upkeep, employ U.S. citizens or even use the dollar. The Justice Department is now taking steps to seize the Madame Gu, according to people with knowledge of the plan.
But the United States can’t seize property in a sovereign nation without permission from its government. The UAE, which has taken a friendlier position toward Moscow, is balking at cooperating with the United States to pursue oligarchs, U.S. officials said. The Kremlin is also using oligarch-controlled companies in the UAE to acquire war supplies that the West is trying to keep out of Russia’s reach, according to a Western official involved in the sanctions effort against Russia.
UAE officials did not comment specifically on the Madame Gu but said in a statement that they took their role “protecting the integrity of the global financial system extremely seriously.”
An examination of Russian assets in the UAE shows even before the war in Ukraine, Dubai had become a playground for Russians with links to President Vladimir Putin. At least 38 business people or officials with ties to the Russian president own homes in Dubai that are collectively valued at more than $314 million, according to the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. Five of those owners are under U.S. sanctions.
Since the Russian invasion, Dubai has established itself as a haven for Russian yachts and aircraft unable to sail or fly elsewhere. After Russian jets were barred from the European Union in late February, the UAE became the destination for 14% of all private flights leaving Russia, up from 3% before the invasion.
“It’s frustrating when you see huge assets that are sitting out there and it appears that the country is not cooperating,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., referring to the UAE. “It would be nice if there were more common cause against Putin while he’s busy shelling hospitals and schools.”
Whitehouse is sponsoring legislation that would use proceeds of the sales of seized Russian assets to help rebuild Ukraine. Senior officials at the U.S. Treasury and State Departments have also complained publicly about the situation.
U.S. officials view the presence of superyachts in places such as Dubai and Bodrum, Turkey, as a symptom of wider Russian circumvention of sanctions and continued access to financial markets. Yachts have also come to symbolize the decadence of Russia’s oligarchs, especially at a time when Russian soldiers are scrounging for body armor and sleeping bags on the front lines.
Pursuing the Madame Gu
Built by the Dutch firm Feadship and put into service in 2013, the Madame Gu has a large helicopter pad on its forecastle with a hangar underneath that can double as a squash court when the chopper isn’t on board. The vessel has berthing for 36 crew members, according to one trade magazine.
Skoch, a member of Russia’s parliament who is linked to assets worth billions of dollars, according to U.S. court filings, has been sanctioned twice by the United States, first in 2018 and then after Russia’s sweeping invasion this year. The Treasury Department has cited his “long-standing ties to Russian organized criminal groups.”
Skoch could not be reached and did not respond to messages left at his office at parliament.
In an interview in October about the government’s broader efforts to go after the assets of oligarchs, Andrew Adams, a federal prosecutor leading the Department of Justice’s KleptoCapture task force, declined to discuss the Madame Gu. But the United States, he said, is warning companies they must not do business with sanctioned individuals and assets. The government, he said, will pursue oligarch-owned assets whose sale could be used to aid Ukraine.
“Where we know there is an asset that can potentially provide significant remuneration for Ukraine, that obviously is an attractive case to pursue,” he said.
Moored in Dubai
Based on a recent visit to Dubai’s Mina Rashid Marina, where the Madame Gu is moored, it is clear international companies are playing a critical role in its care.
UAE-based company DP World, through its subsidiary P&O Marinas, oversees the pier where the Madame Gu is moored. Employees from another DP World subsidiary, World Security, staff the small guard box at the entrance. That makes DP World, which is owned by Dubai’s royal family, potentially vulnerable to American sanctions.
DP World “fully complies with all applicable local and national laws and intends to continue doing the same regarding the Madame Gu and other vessels utilizing our services,” said Adal Mirza, a spokesperson for the company. He added that DP World had not yet heard from the United States or other countries that had sanctioned Skoch, including Britain and the EU.
If DP World were to face fallout from U.S. sanctions enforcers, it wouldn’t be the first time the company has been the focus of attention in Washington, D.C. In 2006, DP World was seeking to manage some terminal operations at six U.S. ports but dropped out of the deal after a bipartisan uproar in Congress.