Wanted by Interpol, Relaxing in Dubai: Geolocating Isabel dos Santos’ Life of Luxury
On 24 November 2022 DW Africa published an interview with Isabel dos Santos – once Africa’s richest woman and the daughter of former Angolan President José dos Santos. She wore a distinctive pink blouse and sat in front of a nondescript, semi-transparent curtain.
Towards the end of the interview dos Santos was asked “Where are you currently at?” to which she replied, after a brief hesitation, “I’m at home”.
She repeated this answer to all further queries about her location.
It was not entirely clear where home was – dos Santos has multiple properties including in London, Lisbon and Dubai – recently, she’s been reported to spend much of her time in Dubai and she told The New York Times in November that she was living in London.
Her whereabouts were of significance at the time of the DW interview as Interpol had reportedly issued a Red Notice requesting global law enforcement locate and provisionally arrest her. Interpol confirmed this a week later.
Dos Santos is the central figure in the Luanda Leaks – a trove of leaked documents – that exposed decades of confidential business dealings and resulted in accusations of embezzlement and fraud by Angolan prosecutors, as well as the freezing of more than a billion dollars worth in assets worldwide. Dos Santos maintains she made her money through legitimate business endeavours and denies accusations of fraud and embezzlement. She has described the Luanda Leaks as “without substance” and described the government’s charges as a political “witch hunt”.
At time of publication on 03 February 2023, dos Santos was yet to be provisionally detained.
But she is by no means in hiding. Dos Santos continues to regularly post on her social media channels, detailing visits to high-end restaurants and nights out – something she alluded to in her DW interview when she insisted she was not disguising her whereabouts.
As Bellingcat discovered, those posts reveal very precise information about Isabel dos Santos’ movements over the past three months and show which of her properties she now appears to call home.
Dining and Dancing
When speaking to DW, Isabel Dos Santos denied she was in hiding, stating: “I’m on social media every day. My whereabouts and place of residence are known”.
One look at Dos Santos’ social media accounts confirms that she is indeed online most days. Dos Santos maintains verified Instagram and Facebook accounts. She has not posted on Facebook since August of last year, but posts regularly on Instagram. She also appears to maintain Twitter and TikTok accounts. Although not verified, we observed on several occasions posts appearing on the TikTok account a few minutes before they appeared on her verified Instagram account, indicating likely ownership by dos Santos.
Among other things, what these accounts show is that dos Santos continues to enjoy a life of luxury.
Imagery on Tripadvisor shows a 2019 photo with a near identical perspective to the video from 2022. We also checked where the sun would have been at that location on the day the video was posted and found the sun azimuth is consistent with the day and hour of post – within a range of five minutes.
In another instance, dos Santos’ was tagged by a friend in an Instagram post on 27 December 2022, where she can be seen enjoying a meal at Nusr-Et Steakhouse Dubai. She briefly featured in another friend’s post from the restaurant that day and reviews of the restaurant point to Nusret Gökçe – also known as Salt Bae – presence at his Dubai outlet in the final week of December 2022.
In this picture posted on another friend’s instagram on 8 January, 2023. Dos Santos can be seen at the left of the frame, under a brightly lit roof. This matches the red and purple corridor feature at Dubai restaurant Trove within the Dubai Mall complex which can be seen here.
A Possible Sardinia Visit?
It is worth noting that dos Santos’ online sharing patterns are not without noise, as she often reposts older content alongside more contemporary images.
For example, on 7 December 2022, a Tiktok appeared from a beach where the landscape seemed vastly different from Dubai. It also featured Spanish subtitles. Could she have left the UAE? We used PeakVisor to verify this location and found it to be in Sardinia, Italy. Dos Santos also posted from this location back in September 2022, but has since deleted the older post.
A visit in September when temperatures reached an average high of 27°C would likely make more sense than a visit in December when the average high is 15.4°C, especially as people can be seen bathing in the water behind dos Santos.
But another clue comes from a major global event, and points to one potential international visit that dos Santos apparently made after the Interpol Red Notice was issued.
The World Cup
On 5 December dos Santos’ posted a picture of herself in a Brazil football shirt with a big screen visible behind her. We geolocated this picture to the official FIFA fan zone set up in Dubai for the 2022 World Cup. Dubai’s skyline can be seen in the background. South Korea played Brazil in the round of 16 that evening and the Brazil manager, Tite, can also be seen on the screen behind dos Santos.
Dos Santos was in Dubai on the evening of December 5 for the match which kicked off at 11pm local time. She was also watching football in Dubai on December 10 and posted from Dubai on December 7 – the same day as the Sardinia post. Apart from the single post of the Beach Li Itriceddi there is no other evidence to suggest that dos Santos’ visited Sardinia around this time.
This wasn’t the last time dos Santos posted about the 2022 World Cup. She also appeared to post about the tournament from outside Dubai.
On 13 December dos Santos shared a now removed Instagram video from inside the Lusail Stadium in Qatar, ahead of the semi-final match between Argentina and Croatia. She also posted a story showing a ticket for the match. We looked at the seating arrangement of the stadium as well as footage from different angles from inside the stadium. We used this information to confirm the seating where the video was recorded is consistent with the gate number specified in the ticket.
If she did make the trip, Qatari authorities did not seek to enact the Red Notice.
Dos Santos’ social media content soon appeared to show her back in Dubai. However, this time in a more secluded location.
Hitting the Gym, Again and Again
A common theme in many of dos Santos’ social media posts, before and after the Red Notice was issued, is her gym workouts. On December 14, she posted an instagram story where she can be seen working out at a gym and another story at a restaurant.
We were able to match features of the gym complex she posted from to the Bulgari Residences gym. This fits with her known and widely reported ownership of a residence within the Bulgari Resort and Residences complex in Dubai, as well as previous posts from the gym going back to April, 2021.
The below image was posted on dos Santos Instagram shows distinctive fittings in the gym.
These matched up perfectly with fittings of the gym in this property advertisement for the Bulgari Residences.
Similarly, the window frames seen in the below image – that was posted by dos Santos’ coach on 9 January 2023- matched up with pictures listed in this property listing for the residences.
A third workout location could be geolocated to what appears to be the Bulgari Resort and Residence squash courts, which are only accessible to residents.
As can be seen in the montage above, the same patterns visible on the premium property website are visible in the reflection of the squash court walls on dos Santos’ Instagram post.
Since the Red Notice was issued, dos Santos has posted photos from the Bulgari Residences’ gym areas on at least a dozen occasions.
The Pink Shirt
Apart from clearly spending her time in Dubai, was dos Santos, in her own words, “at home”? The Bulgari resort in Dubai offers hotel accommodation as well as permanent residences after all.
The day of the DW interview, November 23, where dos Santos made the claim, she also shared a curious selfie wearing a pink blouse with a blue peter pan collar and wired earbuds.
In dos Santos’ selfie, a number of buildings are visible in the reflection on a window behind her – as well as some furniture. As this is a reflection within a selfie, there are two mirrorings going on. What we therefore see is actually the non-mirrored view.
Going back to property listings from Bulgari, we found this listing containing matching building shapes, from a slightly offset perspective.
As can be seen in the montage above, a building across the water matches with what is visible in the reflection. This is the distinctive Bulgari Hotel building, which is situated opposite the site’s residences. Other buildings that can be seen in the distance also line up with this location. It thus seems highly likely dos Santos was indeed speaking from her home in Dubai’s Bulgari Resort and Residences when speaking with DW on November 23.
Further corroboration can be found in the rattan chair that can just be made out behind dos Santos in both the interview with DW and the selfie – these match the chairs visible in images from across the Bulgari Resort and Residences in Dubai. And the semi-transparent curtains match photos posted by dos Santos in previous years.
Timeline Since Red Notice Issued
Using open sources, we have systematically geolocated Isabel dos Santos to Dubai since 23 November 2022. Since that time there have been a handful of days we were not able to geolocate her and one period of four-days where she did not post at all.
Dos Santos has been consistently posting content from Dubai since November 3, but it should be noted that we only actively started examining her Instagram stories from 10 December, 2022 onwards; from then on the number of unlocatable days dropped considerably. So it is theoretically possible that dos Santos made other international trips- during the four day period she did not post, or perhaps a shorter one. Open source evidence suggests that since 23 November, 2022, dos Santos’ has been living in the Gulf, and there is reason to believe she has made at least one trip outside Dubai, to visit neighbouring Qatar for a World Cup match.
So, Why is Isabel dos Santos Still Online?
In response to Bellingcat’s questions about dos Santos’ presence in Dubai, the chief of staff for Angola’s Attorney General told us that they have been interacting with both Interpol and authorities in the UAE. Isabel dos Santos was contacted to comment on Bellingcat’s findings but Bellingcat had not received a response at the time of publication. The Dubai Police and UAE Interior Ministry were also contacted and acknowledged our inquiries but had not responded at time of publication.
Dos Santos – who is reported to be a dual Russian-Angolan national – maintains links to several European capitals through business, property and family connections. Last month Portuguese police searched the offices of key former advisors at the request of Angolan authorities following a court-ordered seizure of assets worth around $1 billion. In March this year an Amsterdam Court will hear from parties involved in a civil case brought against dos Santos in the Netherlands. Despite this, dos Santos did not rule out a future presidential bid in her recent DW interview and just one day before Interpol confirmed the Red Notice she signed a contract with a lobbyist whose remit reportedly includes campaigning against US sanctions.
The UAE has been involved in a number of high profile extraditions in recent months and has been negotiating several new extradition treaties. However, no current extradition treaty exists between the UAE and Angola. Angola’s President João Lourenço signed a number of bilateral deals during a visit to Abu Dhabi in January this year, it’s not known if the whereabouts of dos Santos were discussed.
For now, dos Santos’ world appears to have become smaller even though she continues to share posts of her life in the UAE, a member of Interpol and the home country of Interpol’s president until 2025.
Special thanks to Micael Pereira (Expresso) and Luís Garriapa (SIC Notícias) for their contribution to this report.
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