The Emirates and the NBA

Deeply invested with Apollo Global, with a history of money laundering.

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Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, shown here in 1975, founded the United Arab Emirates in 1971. His son Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) is the UAE’s de facto ruler now, and has taken a keen interest in sports—with deep business ties to Apollo Global, Jeffrey Epstein, and the NBA’s most important source of cash. GENEVIEVE CHAUVEL/SYGMA/GETTY IMAGES

In movies, Americans are amazing at breaking up big crime rings. In reality, it’s not our forte. 

We have discussed big scandals in this series—everything from American businesses and banks colluding with Hitler’s regime to CIA planes carrying heroin and cocaine. Despite investigations, not one has ended with satisfying, all-encompassing justice. Most often, it’s tough to simply find an honest accounting of what happened. 

That’s not only dissatisfying, it also tilts the world that follows. There’s a big dumb ball of illicit billions floating around—and that money wants things. It wants laws to protect it from being seized, influence over politicians and powerbrokers, and leverage over anyone who might steal it.

It also wants famous people to shine it up. That’s where Hollywood and sports come in—they’re incredible at telling us who to like, who’s OK, who’s friendly. 

One of those not-well-broken-up crime rings involves the United Arab Emirates, which is the biggest outside investor in Apollo Global, and has a rich history for such a young nation.

  • The UAE has ties to money laundering, including from drugs and arms sales, that go back to its founding and show many signs of continuing today.

  • Historically, the methods of coercing the powerful into the scheme have included an Epstein-like use of children as sexual playthings.

  • Drexel, Burnham, Lambert—where Leon Black, 76ers billionaire Josh Harris, Hawks billionaire Antony Ressler, and others worked in the 1980s—comes up repeatedly in the testimony around the UAE’s original money laundering scandal.

  • After Drexel shut down and its leader went to prison, a group led by Leon Black founded Apollo Global, where the UAE is the biggest outside shareholder right now.

  • Apollo founder Leon Black knew Epstein for decades, and paid Jeffrey Epstein a tough-to-explain $158 million.

  • Apollo Global is the NBA’s most important source of cash.

It’s a good time to get to the bottom of all this, because the UAE is making an aggressive push into sports, with a special interest in the NBA. 

In 1959, a young Pakistani banker named Agha Hasan Abedi opened United Bank Limited with backing from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. Abedi, Wikipedia points out, was: “One of the first to comprehend the opportunities offered by the oil boom in the Persian Gulf, Abedi pioneered close economic collaboration in the private sector between Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.”

1992’s U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations has a book-length report that says that from the earliest days of working with UAE’s Zayed family, Abedi gained leverage over the powerful by providing them with children as sexual playthings, typically arranged by a woman named Begum Rahim: 

Begum Rahim was reputed to have in United Bank first won the favors or attention of the royal family by arranging to get virgin women from the villages from the ages of 16 to 20. Rahim would make payments to their families, take the teenaged girls into the cities, and there taught them how to dress and how to act, including the correct mannerisms. The women would be then brought to the Abu Dhabi princes. For years, Rahim would take 50-60 of these girls at a time to large department stores in Lahore and Karachi to get them outfitted for clothes. Given the size of Rahim's retinue and her spending habits — $100,000 at a time was not unusual when she was engaged in outfitting her charges — her activities became notorious in the Pakistani community generally, and there was substantial competition among clothiers and jewelers for her business.

An official who worked for Abedi told a U.S. investigator that “some of the females provided some members of the Al-Nahyan family were young girls who had not yet reached puberty.” 

When the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s operation first emerged, it seemed not just diabolical, but novel. Who thinks up a program like that?

It seems less new now. Abedi and Begun Rahim began their operation in the 1950s.

Abu Dhabi is one of seven Emirates, city states which were not, at that time, united into one nation. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (in the photo above) is generally credited with uniting them into the United Arab Emirates in 1971. But testimony in a 1992 Congressional report suggests that the idea really came from his banker friend, Abedi. One witness said Abedi thought it would have the effect of “reducing instability among the gulf emirates and increasing the stature of Sheikh Zayed.”

Abdur Sakhia, later a longtime Abedi colleague, explained it to the committee this way

Abedi created the UAE. He planted the idea of the UAE as a federation to Sheikh Zayed. These people had no standing anywhere in the world. They were smugglers and tribesmen. When Sheik Zayed would come for months in Pakistan, not even a policeman would give him any attention. 

First Abedi ingratiated himself with the family with the use of children as sex items. Then he made them royalty, with help from Abedi’s home country of Pakistan. Sakhia continues: 

Yet two months after meeting Abedi, Sheikh Zayed finally gets a state visit to Islamabad and meets the President of Pakistan which then became the first country to give him any status. The first embassy of UAE was opened in Pakistan and the second in London, and both were staffed by Abedi's appointments.

It’s not exactly a coup, but it’s a kind of sneaky control of a nation. Usually that’s the kind of stuff an intelligence agency would do, not a banker.

In The Outlaw Bank, Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynne quote a source saying “the fellow who founded the bank was working directly with William Casey.” They are talking about Abedi, who Casey met in person.

Casey, who would later run the CIA, is a whole topic. The express tour:

  • Casey was a protege of Wild Bill Donovan, who essentially invented American intelligence, and whose law clients included many of the biggest American banks and businesses that collaborated with Hitler’s regime.

  • In World War II, Casey was a leader in the OSS (a project with a thread to Epstein). 

  • Casey met in person with Manuel Noriega, who ran the cartel’s favorite money laundering operation in Panama. 

  • In an earlier installment, we heard a story from the book The Laundromat by Jake Bernstein, the ambassador got an “eyes only” memo from then-CIA director Casey: “You are hereby instructed never to report, never to use any assets or any resources to pursue anything regarding international fraudulent banking operations in the Seychelles.”

Also, as a reminder, there’s a former CIA executive on Apollo’s board right now.

After founding United Bank and the United Arab Emirates together, Abedi and Zayed launched another ambitious project in 1972: the now defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International (which we have discussed before). According to federal investigators and several books and magazine stories that followed, BCCI had a certain model. To the public it was funded by the Zayed family’s UAE oil money. 

The oil business is lucrative, and potentially cover for things that are even more lucrative. Later deep dives into the paperwork of BCCI revealed that beneath the surface, the Zayed family did more work as the face of the investment than actual investing.

Beneath the surface, lot of the bank’s early investment came from the drug trade, especially in Abedi’s home nation of Pakistan—a haven for smuggling and processing heroin from Afghanistan. 

Think about the show Ozark, and how much work Marty Byrd does to launder a measly $5 million? That’s a quantity that can hide (with real work) in the books of a small resort and a strip club.

But what if, like the cocaine cartels of the 1980s, or the decades-old Afghanistan-based heroin trade, you make more than a billion a month? You would need a giant flock of Byrds, or the biggest strip club in the galaxy. 

Or … the oil industry. The Zayed family oil money worked beautifully as a BCCI cover story, because a surprising amount of BCCI’s income, deposits, and investments were from the drug and arms trades. 

This is where the CIA comes in. (If you are alarmed to learn that the CIA might not ardently police drug dealers, read this.) 

In the early 1970s, Casey had a string of high-level appointments from Richard Nixon, starting with running the SEC and the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Reagan appointed Casey in 1981 as director of the CIA. BCCI’s key early depositor, according to Beaty and Gwyne, was retired Pakistani army general Fazle Haq.

Alfred McCoy’s report in The Nation summarizes what has been reported many places like The New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME, and in The Outlaw Bank:

Caravans carrying CIA arms into that region for the resistance often returned to Pakistan loaded down with opium—sometimes, The New York Times reported, “with the assent of Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance.”

Once the mujahedeen fighters brought the opium across the border, they sold it to Pakistani heroin refiners operating in the country’s North-West Frontier Province, a covert-war zone administered by the CIA’s close ally General Fazle Haq. By 1988, there were an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries in the province’s Khyber district alone. 

How much money do you think would emanate from hundreds of heroin refineries? A lot, I would guess. There are similar tales of BCCI partnering with the Colombian cartels and General Noriega in Panama. 

By 1980, according to a Congressional report, Abedi reportedly came to “supervise essentially all of the handling of Sheikh Zayed and Abu Dhabi's wealth.” Those who have studied the Epstein affair marvel that The Limited founder Leslie Wexner gave Epstein power of attorney over his billions. The Zayed family, according to 1992’s congressional report, did exactly the same thing—billions, reportedly, were entrusted to Abedi through power of attorney. Ultimately, the report concludes, there was a “merger of Abu Dhabi’s interest, and that of BCCI.” 

Sheikh Zayed also directed that his investment authority acquire 10 percent of BCCI through the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—the very entity that is, right now, the biggest outside investor in Apollo Global.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop. NEXT: Don’t you hate it when a third of a trillion dollars in drug profits slips into your economic system?

  • PART 1: Apollo Global, deep pockets with ties to the NBA, Jeffrey Epstein, and Buzzy

  • PART 2: The earliest days of Sears Roebuck, the CIA, and United Fruit

  • PART 3: 1950s and 60s: Buzzy at Princeton, the CIA messes with mind control, Leon Black’s dad

  • PART 4: Beverly Hills in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s

  • PART 5: Buzzy the banker.

  • PART 6: In business with criminals

  • PART 7: Everyone in this story owns planes

  • PART 8: “The biggest crime in American history”

  • PART 9: “A stealth invasion of the U.S. banking industry”

  • PART 10: Jeffrey Epstein’s tutor

  • PART 11: Richard Nixon and Adnan Khashoggi

  • PART 12: The Dechert Report

  • PART 13: Nazis at the Waldorf Astoria

  • PART 14: Hitler’s American business friends

  • PART 15: Epstein teaches at private school

  • PART 16: The Emirates and the NBA

  • PART 17: Pablo Escobar in a Celtics hat

  • PART 18: A new kind of superrich

  • PART 19: The NBA goes to Abu Dhabi