With mounting anger at Israel over assassination, Dubai walks a fine line

Dubai seeks to balance anger over speculation that Israel was behind the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh at a Dubai hotel with its desire to remain a trade hub open to all, even Israelis.

Dubai Police/Reuters
Two suspects in the killing of Hamas militant, Mahmoud al-Mabhou, are shown in this CCTV handout from Dubai police on Feb. 15. Israel's foreign minister said on Wednesday the use of the identities of foreign-born Israelis by a hit squad suspected of killing al-Mabhouh in Dubai did not prove the Mossad spy agency assassinated him.

Beneath its forceful response to the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh, Dubai is maintaining a delicate balance between catering to anti-Israel sentiment at home and winning international respect as an open and modern city.

Authorities here have gone so far as to threaten to arrest Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if his country’s Mossad spy agency is found responsible for the Jan. 20 murder here.

At the same time they have quietly kept up their minimal relations, allowing Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer – who was famously banned from a tournament in the United Arab Emirates last year – to enter the country to compete here this month.

“The Dubai government is trying to make as much as possible out of this with the Israeli angle. [The assassination] is very important for the people [even though] on a government and economic level [Dubai] is warming up,” says Christopher Davidson, author of “Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success.”

Officially the UAE, like many Arab states, has no relations with Israel. But to fulfill their aspirations as globalized cities with liberal economies, leading emirates Abu Dhabi and Dubai have chosen not to boycott Israel altogether.

As the global headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Abu Dhabi must allow all member states to attend meetings. So in January it invited the first Israel minister ever to participate in an IRENA conference.

As a member of the World Trade Organization, the UAE is required to do business with all fellow participants, which includes Israel. Dubai offered last month to replace New York as the home of the United Nations, a role that would also require it to regularly allow in Israeli officials.

Israelis welcome – sort of

Although the UAE officially bans Israeli passport holders not on an official visit as well as travelers who have Israeli stamps in their passports, both types of traveler have been granted entry into the country says Professor Davidson, who is also a lecturer at Durham University in Britain.

“This is deliberately a gray area in the UAE,” he says. “Of course we’re not talking about many people, but it’s more than just a few special cases.”

In some policy areas the two countries’ interests align. Both want to contain an increasingly assertive Iran, and both want regional stability to protect their economies. But any advantage the UAE might gain in cooperating with Israel is overshadowed by the potential backlash at home, where hostility toward the country runs strong.

“In any which way you think of it, people really do not like to see Israelis coming to this country,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist at Emirates University in Al Ain. Arab solidarity is an important plank for the government and as a result criticism of Israel regularly features in its rhetoric.

The dramatic assassination of Mr. Mabhouh, a senior Hamas figure who helped found the Palestinian group’s militant wing, has given an opportunity for Dubai to reassert that position, especially as accusations and criticism of Israel in connection with the murder mount.

Dubai police have not blamed Israel but have said that “Israel carries out a lot of assassinations in many countries.”

“This is all highly convenient for Dubai and the UAE,” says Davidson. “This is a lot of public chest-beating.”

But Dubai appears to be balancing its aggressive response with pragmatism, by refraining from banning Israeli tennis player Ms. Peer from participating in its tournament a second time, despite the mounting anger over Mabhouh’s assassination. The move could have won local praise, as it did last year when she was blocked entry at the last minute in apparent retaliation for Israel’s war on Gaza.

Peer is, however, banned from talking directly to the press after matches and from going anywhere besides her hotel and the tennis courts. She won her first match on Tuesday.

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