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Dubai assassination puts tough-talking cop Dahi Khalfan Tamim in spotlight

The expanding investigation into the Dubai assassination of a Hamas official – with Britain alleging this week that Israel forged passports used by the alleged killers – has drawn attention to the methods and style of Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai's longest-serving police chief.

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“If anything happens in Dubai, he can catch it,” says Sheikha Al Suweidi, a housewife from Abu Dhabi.

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Nearly a dozen Emiratis and Arabs interviewed all knew of Tamim (they call him Dahi Khalfan) and spoke of him with pride.

Beyond solving sensational cases, Tamim has built a reputation as someone who’s kept Dubai safe for 30 years, even as it transformed into a glitzy cosmopolis hosting some 200 nationalities and 7 million visitors a year.

“Everybody gives him credit for the fact that Dubai is one of the safest cities, given how open it is,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor at Emirates University in Al Ain.

Evenas Dubai changed at breathtaking speed, he kept pace. He introduced a state-of-the-art forensics lab and blanketed the city with video surveillance, with estimates ranging from 1,500 to 6,000 cameras. Officers received training from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and other leading agencies.

Other measures went further. According to security analysts, informants are plucked from the various nationalities here to spy on their communities. E-mails and phone calls are tapped at will. Petty thieves are deported, but not before having their eyes scanned for a biometric database to blacklist them from ever returning.

Foreigners here who know nothing about the police chief attest to his success.

Dubai is “way safer” than cities in Britain or America, says a banker who moved here from London two years ago and asked that his name not be used, echoing a sentiment widely shared among Westerners. “I feel no fear of anything,” from walking around late at night to trusting that lost belongings will be returned.

According to a 2009 survey conducted by YouGov for the UAE-based paper The National, 96 percent of Dubai residents said they felt very safe or somewhat safe in the emirate.

That sense of security has contributed to Dubai’s ability to draw tourists and investors at least as much as any of the luxury hotels, indoor ski slopes or beach-side restaurants that have put it on the map.

The reluctance of the Brit and others to be identified represents the flip side of Dubai's "openness" and security. The press is controlled, and speaking out on sensitive topics can be a way for foreigners, whether bankers or taxi drivers – to lose their visa.

An insider, but outspoken

Tamim’s success has earned him a place in the inner circle of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. As head of security, Tamim sits on the the sheikh's Executive Council. He also chairs the budget committee.

Tamim is “well trusted by Sheikh Mohammed,” says Professor Abdulla. “He’s one of the longest-living lieutenants next to the sheikh,” and stands with him in the core group of “people who made Dubai.”

Both men, born two years apart, started their careers in the police force. In 1968, Sheikh Mohammed was named the head of Dubai police, a title he still holds, and two years later Tamim graduated from the Royal Police Academy in Jordan and joined the force.

Tamim’s trusted status has given him license to speak openly about sensitive subjects. In 2002, he became the first public official in Dubai to admit that prostitution exists here.