Light regulation and a full array of services hold the prospect of good old-fashioned plunder

Isabel dos Santos is one member of Africa’s elites in search of new, more accommodating financial services © BRUNO FONSECA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman and the daughter of Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos, has moved her residence and that of several of her companies to Dubai.

The revelation emerged early this month, just days after Angola froze Ms dos Santos’s assets in the country, a noteworthy escalation in the government’s offensive against the family that ruled the oil-rich state for 38 years until 2017.

As her political clout evaporates in western Europe and investigations there come to a head, it may become difficult for Ms dos Santos to divide her time between her former main residences in London and Lisbon.

Ms dos Santos’s reported move to the Jumeirah Bay gated community (her companies are now based in the Almas Tower) is only the latest of a number of high profile escapes by African oligarchs with legal troubles to Dubai, including the Gupta brothers’ move from South Africa.

These spectacular events reveal deeper patterns of shifting offshore dynamics. Capital flight out of Africa by African elites and foreigners alike is recognised as a serious, perennial problem undermining African development. It is estimated to far exceed foreign aid to the continent and its pace has quickened in tandem with African economic growth since the turn of the century.

Until about a decade ago, capital flight out of Africa mostly occurred through a variety of onshore financial centres and offshore havens in OECD states and British Overseas Territories. Since then, diversification towards Asian financial centres has become noticeable. Dubai is a high profile location, but others such as Singapore and Hong Kong also feature prominently.

There are three main reasons for this. The first is the increased regulatory burden in more traditional financial centres. From multiple Caribbean jurisdictions to the Channel Islands and from Switzerland to Lichtenstein, the nature of the offshore game may not have changed radically, but a rhetorical shift away from secrecy, a much greater degree of investigative scrutiny and genuine legal changes have rerouted some African wealth flows into more opaque locations. International businesses active in Africa such as commodity traders have also reacted to bad press in places like Geneva by decamping to light-regulation Dubai and Singapore.

The second reason is that, by moving to new financial centres, African oligarchs encounter the same service providers that work for them in London, Lisbon, Paris, Zurich and other traditional centres. Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore feature the same top-range banks, legal firms, commodity traders, management consultants and all-purpose advisers they would find in more traditional locations. Many of these service providers cheerfully suggest to their African clients that they should relocate to more amenable contexts and continue their relationships on new ground. In short, the new Asian settings feature world-class service provision, in places committed to a much greater degree of discretion than is increasingly the case in western financial centres.

The third reason is the proactive role played by Asian governments in attracting new global business. As Oxford academic Matthew Erie explains in a notable recent investigation of Asia’s new legal hubs, governments in the region promise world-class infrastructure and service provision as well as political stability and the rule of law. (The latter is a more credible offering in Singapore and Hong Kong than in Dubai, of course, but the autocratic nature of Dubai’s government is offset by a unique receptivity to some characters and types of money flow.)

Much of this economic activity is legitimate and the result of institutions and capabilities put in place by governments, but many associated flows are not. Indeed, it is thesymbiotic relationship between licit and illicit business that seems conducive in such locations. The policy approach is too often either to turn a blind eye or to actually encourage this. Welcoming opaque financing and politically exposed persons from Africa and elsewhere is often a deliberate strategy, not an unintended consequence.

This will sound familiar to those tracking the workings of Asian financial centres and the way in which they have hoovered up business from often fraught regional settings.

Russian, central Asian, Middle Eastern and south Asian offshoring strategies have used such channels for decades. In the African setting, however, this was the case only to a limited extent until the past decade, except for a narrow connection between north-east Africa, especially Somalia, and Dubai.

Jurisdictions such as Malta, the British Virgin Islands, Panama and Monaco would have featured more frequently in African offshore scandals of the past. But it was only a matter of time before Asia’s tried and tested channels were taken advantage of by globalising African elites. Roland Marchal, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and one of the shrewdest observers of African-Persian Gulf relations, noted two decades ago that these were set to expand massively along the lines described here.

We are only now starting to map out this shift. But it is obvious that Africa’s engagement with the offshore world is increasingly diversified and in the process of “Asianising”.

In a forthcoming research report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Dubai’s role as a hub for global illicit financial flows, Matthew T Page, Jodi Vittori and their colleagues provide evidence and analysis in areas such as human trafficking, the gold trade and money laundering, especially through the real estate market. (Page’s revelations on Nigerian-owned real estate in Dubai are especially eye-opening.)

In Singapore, the government’s otherwise legitimate Global Trader Programme is providing an escape route for many commodity traders keen to avoid overdue reform in the sector. This is a problem for Africa, where commodities make up the biggest share of the continent’s economy and related corruption is a systemic issue.

Hong Kong has surfaced frequently in African offshore stories, from the Gupta saga to Ms dos Santos’s interests, as the host of exploitative investment vehicle the Queensway Group and the turning plate for other secretive China-Africa investments.

All of these worrying new connections should be submitted to much closer scrutiny. What we know now is enough to raise red flags.

What can be done with such knowledge is a different matter. Western clout is fast receding in global governance and the west’s own commitment to financial transparency is ambivalent at best.

For their part, large Asian countries such as China and India, along with many African states may complain about individual escapees or brazen instances of capital flight or tax evasion. But they seem ultimately unbothered by these structural developments, which in many ways show supply meeting (enthusiastic) demand. Dubai has in no way expressed displeasure at the presence of the Guptas, Ms dos Santos, or their many counterparts cruising down Sheikh Zayed Road.

This is no reason for civil society, journalists, scholars and anyone who cares about African development to stand by in silence while the mechanisms of resource extraction that have long characterised western dealings with the continent become fully globalised.

At the very least, these trends make a mockery of claims that the Africa-Asia relationship is developmentally minded and will release the continent from the sort of asymmetrical dependence it long had with the west. The full consolidation of these financial relationships would amount to good old-fashioned plunder, even if in 21st century garb.

Ricardo Soares de Oliveira is professor of the International Politics of Africa at the University of Oxford. He is the author of “Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War” (2015) and is currently writing another book, “Africa and the Offshore World”.