Profile: A lifetime of financial law enforcement

Hamid Al Zaabi, director general of the United Arab Emirates Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing, reflects on his career, what it takes to combat today’s financial criminals, and the threat landscape in 2023
by Eve Reed and Fred Heritage


The skills and experiences from a lifetime in law enforcement have served Hamid well for his current role, in which he is spearheading reforms to create a robust anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism financing (CTF) system in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  

Hamid’s career path was forged from a young age. Growing up in the UAE during the 1970s and 80s, as it evolved and fizzed with change, was an “incredible experience”, he says. He spent his childhood on the east coast of the Emirate of Sharjah, watching his beloved country develop rapidly into a globalised nation under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The country’s population grew and became truly international during this period, with many expatriates moving to the UAE to help build its economy. Diversification took hold, with financial services, transport, and logistics becoming particularly important sectors. Hamid recalls that he “had a front-row seat” to these developments, adding that, as the UAE economy grew, so did his awareness of the financial criminals attempting to take advantage of that growth.

Global opportunities and local threats

As a teenager, he could already see that the UAE’s ambitions to become a centre for international trade would “bring both global opportunities and local threats, as illicit actors sought to exploit the UAE’s financial system”. Seeing the impact of financial crime on the national economy and society, he resolved to dedicate himself to “fighting financial criminals to protect the UAE’s role as a trading hub and international financial centre”.

Hamid Al Zaabi

Director general, Executive Office of Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing

: UAE Security Department

: MA in Human Resources Management, Abu Dhabi University

MA in Senior Leadership Development, International Business School

BA in Legal and Police Studies, Abu Dhabi Police College

This early interest prompted Hamid to pursue an undergraduate degree in legal and police sciences from the Abu Dhabi Police College, then on to study for a master’s degree in senior leadership development (see CV boxout).

For two decades, Hamid has worked his way up through the ranks of UAE law enforcement. His most significant role just prior to joining the UAE’s Executive Office was leading the country’s efforts on terrorist financing investigations and prosecutions, working with the country’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It is an area Hamid believes the UAE has set a shining example in over the past 15 years, despite the nature of threats and risks in the region. The most valuable lesson he learned doing the job is that “countries are most effective when there is a risk-based approach tied to a holistic government response”.

Hamid became an advocate for risk-based approaches to security and law enforcement after working with the FATF and its international partners. According to Hamid, this approach begins with a national risk assessment (NRA) involving a wide range of national stakeholders coming together to identify and evaluate risks according to a predetermined methodology. The Executive Office is currently leading the UAE's second NRA, working with the World Bank Group on a ‘toolkit’ to enable client countries and jurisdictions to self-assess their own money laundering and terrorist financing risks.  

The UAE adopts a holistic approach to security, Hamid explains. The Executive Office plays the leading role of national coordinator, working with 74 different agencies and entities on the country’s AML and CFT initiatives. “If there is a weak part in the AML/CFT framework, the whole system suffers,” he says.

Achievements are shared moments

Hamid says his greatest achievement is a shared one: working with a wide range of national law enforcement bodies to achieve his vision of leading reforms that make the UAE’s AML and financial counter-terrorism system “one of the strongest globally” which, he says, “we are making very good progress towards”.

Surprisingly, Hamid recalls a recent shopping trip to the local mall as a particularly proud moment, where he was asked to show documentation when buying a valuable watch. Asking the shopkeeper whether this was always necessary, the response was: “The UAE takes money laundering very seriously and there’s no exception, I’m afraid”. Hamid says, “That brought a smile to my face because I could see that the system is working.”

Future threats and benefits

Hamid knows only too well that there will always be new threats in the Middle East because “financial criminals now run truly global networks and are becoming more sophisticated”. For the UAE, working closely with regional partners to identify typologies that are specific to his part of the world is key to combating these operations.

The biggest threats Hamid sees in 2023 include:

  1. The use of cryptocurrencies and virtual assets for criminal purposes, with the principle threat coming from the state’s capacity (or lack thereof) to regulate and supervise their use. “The threat is potentially very far reaching since many individuals choose to invest in these assets,” says Hamid.
  2. Machine learning in the metaverse, whereby cybercriminals using machine learning tools aim to steal digital identities, as well as tokens. “They can also channel illicit flows into metaverse assets as part of money laundering operations,” adds Hamid.
  3. The abuse of legal personalities, and failure to properly implement ultimate beneficial ownership (UBO) which, Hamid says, is “nothing new”. However, it is something the UAE continues to take seriously. The government now files 100% of the country’s UBO info on its National Economic Register, he explains, adding that “serious organised crime often seeks to abuse legal personalities, and 46% of total criminal proceeds are linked to serious financial crime”.   

In addition to these primary threats, Hamid also sees threats posed by general weaknesses in national AML/CFT systems used to combat money laundering and financial terrorism. He remains confident that the country’s national strategy and plan tackles all these threats robustly.

He is optimistic that technological advances have the potential to make financial crime-fighting efforts faster, enabling law enforcement professionals “to act in real time and bring competent authorities closer together in their pursuit of financial crimes”. He expects big data to improve the implementation of FATF Standards to advance AML and terrorist financing globally because of its potential to help supervisors and law enforcement agencies identify and track criminal activities. “When data is collected from separate organisations, with the support of the private sector, a clearer picture emerges,” he adds. But Hamid is wary of relying too heavily on technology: “While we can’t afford not to capitalise on technological innovations, we have to also be mindful that they may lead to increased financial exclusion of certain segments of society, such as those cut off from the internet, namely the poor, rural inhabitants and the elderly.”

Work–life balance

Despite the long days and responsibilities, Hamid feels lucky, revealing that he’s rarely stressed because he enjoys his work “immensely”. Day-to-day, he makes exercise and family time a priority. Inevitably, meetings take up a chunk of office hours but several times a week he also hosts guests such as ambassadors or international delegations – placing great stock on the importance of strong personal relationships to be truly effective in his role.

Switching off when he leaves the office isn’t always easy, as Hamid remains in contact with officials at all hours. But a family meal round the table is his favourite way to unwind, listening to his children’s stories. At the weekend, winters are for camping in the desert and summers are a time to be on a boat or by the sea.

Valuing an inquisitive mind

So, does Hamid have any advice for career starters in his profession? “I’m hesitant to give advice because each of our paths is different,” he says. But, he believes the trick to a successful career is finding the path that suits you and pursuing it with the utmost commitment: “Follow your passion with determination, that’s the best way to succeed.” What Hamid looks for most in new recruits is an inquisitive mind because he believes that they will go the extra mile with their work.

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Published: 22 Mar 2023
  • Compliance
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Risk
  • International regulation
  • Career Development
  • UAE
  • money laundering
  • Middle East
  • metaverse
  • machine learning
  • financial crime
  • cryptoassets
  • AML

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