Oussama El Omari is the former chief executive and director general of the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone Authority in the United Arab Emirates.
Leadership turmoil at Interpol over the past two months has brought long- overdue attention to the international police organization and how it allows authoritarian regimes to abuse its “ red notice ” alerts. Red notices were devised to function, in effect, as an international arrest warrant for suspected terrorists or fugitives. But authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China , have realized that red notices can be used to harass and intimidate perceived foes.
Last month, it appeared that Alexander Prokopchuk, a veteran of Russia’s security services, was going to replace the former Interpol president, Meng Hongwei, a former official in China’s fearsome Public Security Ministry who had been arrested in China on corruption charges. Following an international outcry, representatives from Interpol’s 192 member states instead elected South Korean Kim Jong-yang.
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I hope Kim will work to reform the use of red notices as a political weapon. My world was turned upside down two years ago when I discovered that a red notice had been issued against me by the United Arab Emirates.
I still have my life, and a home in North Carolina, but I no longer have a livelihood.
In 1997, I was hired to develop the Free Trade Zone Authority in Ras Al Khaimah, or RAK, one of the seven independent entities making up the UAE. I was appointed chief executive and director general of the free-trade zone in 2004, reporting to a member of the RAK royal family, Sheik Faisal bin Saqr al-Qasimi, a son of the emirate’s longtime ruler, Sheik Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.
Upon the elderly sheik’s death in 2010, a scorched-earth succession battle among his sons ensued. The most prominent conflict involved Sheik Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi and Sheik Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, but Faisal was also among those vying for power. When Saud prevailed, Faisal was in trouble. As it turned out, so were the senior executives who worked under him in the Free Trade Zone Authority. We were fired in the 2012-2013 period.
As a U.S. citizen with experience as a corporate executive, I was accustomed to basic employment practices. I wasn’t told why I had been fired, and when I sought compensation I was owed, the request was denied, also without explanation. Lawyers I hired in the UAE made no progress when I sought legal redress in the courts. Those efforts appear to have engendered a backlash.
In July 2016, I was returning to the United States from a trip abroad and was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. A customs officer, looking at his computer screen, said, “You must have serious problems with the UAE.” He said I should avoid traveling there because I was likely to be jailed. The United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UAE, he noted, “but you be careful.”
I was then led to a small room. Customs officers took my passport, made phone calls, consulted computers and searched my luggage. I was soon released, but I was shaken.
The customs officer hadn’t mentioned an Interpol red notice, but that seemed the only explanation. I contacted Interpol and requested my file. I was right: The UAE had requested a red notice because, unbeknown to me, I had been convicted in absentia of “embezzlement and abuse of position.” I subsequently learned from my brother, who lives in RAK, that he had been refused an exit visa to leave the country.
Once you’re flagged with a red notice, getting it removed is extremely difficult. Interpol refused my request, saying it is not the organization’s role to assess countries’ law enforcement or judicial systems. I was also advised by Interpol that the UAE had said I was free to appeal the conviction for my supposed crimes. Based on what I knew from the experience of others who had run afoul of the Emirates, I regarded the offer as an attempt to lure me back to the UAE, where I might be imprisoned.
In addition to trying, but failing, to persuade Interpol to remove my red notice, I brought a federal suit against Saud and others in RAK for breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other harms. The suit has been dismissed twice on grounds of sovereign immunity; I’m now petitioning the Supreme Court to challenge that defense.
None of this may come to anything. I am afraid to travel internationally, which is essential to my work developing free-trade zones. I may never see my brother again. I am alive, for which I am grateful, but I fear for the safety and security of friends and colleagues I left behind in the UAE.