Multiple brokers report a big jump in the number of Russian billionaires searching for multimillion dollar homes in the city.
As millions of Ukrainian refugees flee their war-torn country to Poland and western Europe, Russian billionaires are fleeing—via their luxury yachts and private jets—to a different location: Dubai.
Displaced by sanctions and unwelcome in the West, Russian billionaires are on the hunt for luxury properties in Dubai, lured by the Emirate’s glitzy beaches, flexible visa program and pledged neutrality on Ukraine, according to several Dubai-based real estate brokers who have shown properties to representatives of Russian billionaires.
“We are getting increasing requests from Russian oligarchs,” says Şerif Nadi Varlı, the lead real estate broker at Vartur Real Estate, which has offices in Dubai and Turkey, another top destination for wealthy Russians looking to escape sanctions. “Those kinds of people are looking for bigger investments, they’re scared to keep their assets in European countries.”
“We have seen some interest from oligarchs, not just in buying property in Dubai, but fully residing in Dubai,” says another broker, who asked to remain anonymous for concerns of breaking confidentiality agreements. A third Dubai-based real estate executive (who also asked to remain anonymous) says their firm has worked with “multiple” Russian billionaires scouting for homes.
The billionaires will be in familiar company. At least three Russian billionaires and one recent dropoff already own properties in the emirate city-state, according to data provided by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies. Fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev owns a $29.5 million property on Palm Jumeirah, a luxury archipelago of artificial islands shaped like a palm tree. His ultra-wealthy neighbors in the islands include Albert Avdolyan and his wife Elena—who own two properties worth a combined $19 million—and Andrei Molchanov, who owns a $26.5 million home. (Molchanov dropped off Forbes World’s Billionaires list in 2022.) Pavel Durov, the 37-year-old founder of messaging app Telegram, also lives there.
Dubai’s newest would-be residents seem to be shopping in a pricier market: the most expensive property offered by Nadi Varlı’s Vartur, also in Palm Jumeirah, has an asking price of $68 million. “In the super luxury segment, we’ve seen crazy, crazy transactions. Like prices you’ve never seen before,” says Alexander von Sayn-Wittgenstein, CEO of boutique brokerage LUXCAPITAL, which facilitated a $76 million home purchase–again in Palm Jumeirah–earlier this week.
The brokers who spoke to Forbes identified several neighborhoods, in addition to the famous Palm Jumeirah, that are popular with wealthy Russian buyers. Jumeirah Bay, a six-million square foot manmade island, where villas fetch up to $30 million, is near the top of the list. Other common destinations include Emaar Beachfront, whose luxury high-rise apartment buildings look out on Dubai Harbour, and Emaar Beachfront, home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa, and the world’s second largest shopping mall, The Dubai Mall. The Dubai Marina, which includes the commercial and tourist-friendly beachfront La Mer and the luxury waterfront development Jumeirah Beach Residence, is also a hit.
“These big name [developers] in Dubai are telling [me] that Russians are buying enormously,” says Nadi Varlı, who mentioned Emaar Properties—the developer behind Emaar Beachfront and the Burj Khalifa—among the firms fielding requests from wealthy Russians.
Russians moving to Dubai may be looking to take advantage of the United Arab Emirates’ “golden visa” program, which provides long-term residency for foreigners if they invest at least 10 million dirhams ($2.7 million) in a local company or investment fund. The U.A.E liberalized its visa program in early 2021 to encourage “investors, professionals, special talents and their families” to relocate to Dubai. It also introduced a citizenship by investment scheme in January 2021 that allows foreigners to acquire Emirati citizenship through investment in “property,” but it’s still unclear how much would-be citizens need to invest to obtain it, and what kinds of property are included.
“It’s effectively a lifetime residency that you get granted by the Dubai government [and] it’s very affordable for many of these affluent Russians,” says Abdullah Alajaji, CEO of Dubai real estate brokerage Driven Properties. Alajaj’s company recorded a 71% increase in the net value of properties purchased by Russians during the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period last year. “A lot of the individuals we’ve worked with were domiciled in London and Luxembourg and Switzerland and Israel, and are now looking to set up shop in Dubai,” says Alajaji, “whether it’s for their own business, [or] moving their families and making a decision to reside in Dubai.”
In recent weeks, several yachts owned by Russian billionaires have made their way to Dubai’s harbor. The Madame Gu superyacht, owned by sanctioned steel oligarch and Duma member Andrei Skoch and valued at $156 million by yacht valuation experts VesselsValue, was last seen in Dubai in early March. The 290-foot superyacht Nirvana, belonging to unsanctioned nickel magnate Vladimir Potanin, and the $82 million Titan, owned by steel tycoon Alexander Abramov, are currently moored in Mina Rashid, a man-made cruise terminal in the northern part of the city. The two superyachts are moored right next to each other, according to data from vessel tracking service MarineTraffic. Two other oligarch-owned yachts, Anatoly Lomakin’s $58 million Sea & Us and Anatoly Sedykh’s $73 million Hermitage, were also last seen in Dubai in March and April.
The Mina Rashid terminal is ultimately owned by the government of Dubai, which also owns another yacht marina popular among Russian billionaires—Porto Montenegro in Tivat, Montenegro—through the Investment Corporation of Dubai. Abramovich’s $474 million Solaris yacht briefly cruised into Porto Montenegro on March 12 before sailing to Turkey, while oil & gas mogul Vagit Alekperov’s Galactica Super Nova departed the marina on March 2.
Besides their superyachts, oligarchs are also taking their private planes to the Emirates. Forbes found four jets linked to sanctioned Russian billionaires—including Roman Abramovich, Arkady Rotenberg, Viktor Rashnikov and Mikhail Gutseriev—that were last tracked in Dubai or Abu Dhabi in February and March. Abramovich’s Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, registered in Aruba with tail number P4-BDL, was last seen in Dubai on March 4, after flying there from Moscow. The three jets that were last recorded in Dubai flew to Dubai World Central (DWC), the city-state’s newest airport and an alternative to Dubai International, where the vast majority of scheduled flights land. Called the “airport of the future” by state-owned Dubai Airports, DWC is still being completed and the only passenger flights it currently receives appear to be seasonal charters offered by four Russian airlines from a variety of Russian cities.
It’s not just Russia’s billionaires who are flocking to Dubai shores, as the merely wealthy—banned from traveling to Europe—scoop up apartments. The number of Russians who own properties in Dubai soared in March, driven by activity in the $250,000 to $500,000 price range, according to data from Dubai real estate firm Metropolitan Premium Properties cited in several Russian news outlets. (Metropolitan Premium Properties did not respond to Forbes’ request for comment). Demand is driving up prices, and frustrating some buyers: Ellada Gasanova, a popular Russian fashion designer, complained on Instagram about Dubai’s pricey real estate market, according to local Russian media reports. (Rest assured: Gasanova reportedly found herself an apartment).
For Dubai locals, the recent surge in Russian buyers is not surprising, given Russia’s history of investment in the Emirate. “The Dubai real estate market has always been a success with Russian investors as they were always amongst the top investors in the U.A.E.,” says Hamid Jaafri, CEO of One Investments, a property investment company. “Dubai has historically benefitted from geopolitical instability due to its safe haven status and undoubtedly the [Russia-Ukraine] crisis will benefit Dubai.”
The U.A.E. has not been shy in its refusal to back Western sanctions against Russia. It was one of only three countries, along with China and India, to abstain in a United Nations Security Council vote on February 25 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; it also abstained in a General Assembly vote on April 7 to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. On March 4, the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based financial crime watchdog, placed the U.A.E. on its “grey list” of jurisdictions under increased monitoring.
The U.A.E.’s financial ties to Russia run deep. Mubadala Investment Corporation, the U.A.E.’s sovereign investment fund, has invested $3.6 billion in 50 Russian companies as of 2022. At least two of those investments, worth nearly $400 million, are tied to sanctioned Russian billionaires: In December, Mubadala acquired a 1.9% stake in petrochemicals giant Sibur, part-owned by sanctioned oligarchs Leonid Mikhelson, a billionaire, and Gennady Timchenko. Forbes estimates that stake is now worth roughly $220 million, down from about $500 million at the time of the purchase, due to the impact of sanctions on the ruble. In June, Mubadala spent $175 million to purchase 2.6% of En+ Group, a publicly traded aluminum firm whose largest shareholder is sanctioned billionaire Oleg Deripaska. That brought Mubadala’s stake in En+ Group up to 2.86%, now worth about $170 million as the company’s stock has dipped.
At an investment conference in Dubai on March 28, Mubadala CEO Khaldoon Al Mubarak said the fund would “pause investment” in Russia. Still, the influx of Russian billionaires in search of luxury homes shows that the Emirates are still welcoming investment from Moscow’s riches.