Arabian Business, along with the rest of the world, first came into contact with London-based businessman Safi Qurashi as he held a stick and carved out a crude map of Great Britain in the sand. As he stood on a deserted island four miles off the coast of Dubai he seemed, literally, to have ‘The World’ at his feet.
This was 2009, but as real estate prices were in freefall and plunged nearly 60 percent in Dubai, Qurashi didn’t seem in the slightest bit stressed by the $60m price tag he had paid for a man-made island in the shape of his beloved British homeland in the middle of the Arabian Gulf.
“It makes a great story, doesn’t it? We bought it in the middle of a recession,” he joked at the time.
As Qurashi later posed with a series of British standards — a china teacup, a bowler hat and a Union Jack flag — he seemed to have no sense of the turmoil that was about to engulf him and his family and which would bring him crashing back down to earth.
Fast forward to 2012 and he has gone from signing multi-million-dollar real estate deals to reading up on legal textbooks in Dubai Central Jail in a bid to clear his name and prove his innocence.
“I had really bad legal advice in the first year,” he says despondently. “After spending a year in jail and reading almost every law book that is around I’ve become a bit of an expert and I have got this far without lawyers.”
Having arrived in Dubai in 2004, Qurashi’s company, Premier Real Estate Bureau, was selling nearly 800 properties a year by 2007 and in 2008 it was turning an annual profit of over $400m.
Operating as a middle man for most of the deals, difficulties arose as liquidity began to evaporate and some of the Dubai deals he had brokered began to unravel, particularly those relating to the Dubai Waterfront project and a joint venture to develop the Monaco and Iraq islands on ‘The World’.
In both deals, Qurashi forwarded security cheques to his partners as part of the agreement. However, when these were cashed, police cases were lodged against him and he and his business partner were imprisoned for cheque fraud.
“We have done nothing wrong,” Qurashi told the media upon his arrest. “We’re not criminals, we are victims of the system.”
Following a court hearing, he was sentenced to serve seven years in jail and the decision was upheld in an appeal in 2010.
Since then, Qurashi and his family have used many tactics to try and win his release. A court report in October 2011 confirmed Qurashi had no liabilities and did not owe the complainant any money, but this did not sway the authorities.
His two children, thirteen-year-old Sara and ten-year-old Maaria, started a campaign, called ‘Justiceformydad’ to free their father and even launched a protest outside the UAE Embassy in London and petitioned the UAE Ambassador to the UK for assistance in their plight.
His case was also taken up by Tarique Ghaffur, the former assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, who wrote a 115-page case review claiming the Qurashi may have been wrongly convicted.
Earlier this year, Qurashi took matters into his own hands and initiated a hunger strike in order to gain the attention of authorities. After losing 33 pounds, he collapsed after 40 days and was rushed to Dubai Police Hospital suffering breathing difficulties and chest pain.
Facing his third summer in jail, Qurashi has now agreed to end his hunger strike as new expert court reviews have revisited the evidence and a new hearing on 23 July has been assigned.
“[The Attorney General] has agreed to send [the Dubai Waterfront case] back with his recommendation that the Court of Cassation relooks at the evidence, especially the report from the civil court that states that I have paid the money in full,” Qurashi says.
In the case relating to the Monaco and Iraq islands on the ‘The World’, a second expert review was also undertaken and submitted to the Attorney General’s office.
In an English translation of this report, seen by Arabian Business, it states the security cheque (‘Cheque #788’) should have been returned to Qurashi as he had ordered the bank to stop it and had filed a complaint against the holder with Dubai Police.
“The cheque was returned by the drawee bank due to ‘stopping of collection’ as the drawer alleged that the cheque was stolen… and that [Qurashi] opened a police case against the payee with the charge of stealing the cheque,” the expert report says.
“The expert deems that [Qurashi’s partner] is not entitled to Cheque #788, amounting to AED7,191,175.00, accordingly the same shall be returned to [Qurashi],” the report concludes.
“If that is what the expert has concluded and that cheque has to be returned… well, it is that cheque I am serving a three-year sentence for… If it is supposed to be returned to me then I couldn’t have bounced it,” Qurashi says. “We have also submitted a bank letter that says it is a stopped cheque,” he adds.
With both expert reports concluding the cheques should have been returned to him, Qurashi is pushing for the courts to release him on bail ahead of his 23 July hearing.
“They have seen I have spent two and half years in jail and now they have this report in their hands… What I am saying is, I don’t care how long it takes, release me on bail, that is what I am after,” he says.
In order to claim bail, Qurashi must appeal to the judge who will be ruling in his 23 July case or directly to the Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
While a bail application has been submitted, at the time of going to press Qurashi’s family had not received a response from Dubai authorities.
Despite the new court date later this month, a possible obstacle is the fact that the expert reports are in relation to the civil court, while Qurashi was jailed by the criminal court.
“I have spent two and half years in jail for something I have not done. I have lost my business and my ability to develop all the developments we have under process and I recently lost my family home as my assets are stuck and my cashflow has dried up,” Qurashi says.
While many UK media reports have criticised the conditions in Dubai jails, Qurashi is reluctant to do so. “I have no issues with the conditions in jail. Jail is jail. You adapt to the environment you are in.”
However, he is more scathing in his criticism of the British establishment, who he accuses of failing to support him in his case to prove his innocence.
“[They have done] absolutely zero,” he says angrily. “The British Embassy hides behind the simple fact that it does not interfere in another country’s legal process, unless you can prove ‘due process’ has not been followed.”
According to Qurashi’s website, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials in Dubai and in the UK have told them their policy requires an Emirati lawyer to state in writing to officials at the British Embassy in Dubai that ‘due process’ has not followed in their trials.
In August 2011, Qurashi’s Emirati lawyer provided embassy officials in Dubai with a letter. This satisfied the FCO’s legal team and a diplomatic note was sent to the UAE authorities, Qurashi claims. However, since then, British officials have changed their position and have stated that they are no longer able to pursue Qurashi’s case.
“They didn’t act upon it… they did nothing. They never hired a legal expert to look into my case or looked at any of the legal documents I sent to London. They should have hired a legal consultant to look if there a problem with due process.
“They pretend to look after my welfare. When I collapsed [during hunger strike] they did nothing about it… The ambassador, in two and half years and after 150 requests from me and my family, has refused to meet me or my family. ‘Unavailable’ is the only answer we get,” he says, clearly upset.
In response to Qurashi’s criticisms, the FCO in London claims the British Embassy has offered Qurashi advice on obtaining local legal assistance to pursue his case.
The old proverb says “life begins at 40”. When Qurashi was 39 he was languishing on a Dubai beach which he had bought to develop into the emirate’s latest tourism attraction and was being showcased by TV presenter Piers Morgan as an example of the success British expatriates were enjoying overseas.
As he turned 40, his life was turned upside down and he is instead languishing in a Dubai jail, seeking to clear his name and restart his business empire.
“I want to get out of jail but I want to clear my name… I don’t want to be branded a criminal and I want it acknowledged that I am innocent,” he says.
The case continues.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.