Dubai assassination: UAE demands justice but with what leverage?

In the Dubai assassination, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has summoned European ambassadors in an effort to pressure Europe to take action against Israel over its alleged killing of a Hamas commander last month.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Pictures of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a former Hamas commander killed in Dubai last month, are seen at al-Yarmouk camp near Damascus, Jordan, on Monday. In the aftermath of the Dubai assassination, tensions between the UAE and Europe are heating up.

Diplomatic tensions are heating up over the forged European passports used by a hit squad that came to Dubai to murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

But there's not a lot that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) can do beyond complaining to European ambassadors. The focus now is mostly on European countries calling in Israeli diplomats, and the European Union, which today issued a public condemnation of the use of forged passports.

The UAE has very liberal rules for Europeans coming here: they can currently enter the country without even a visa. But many experts doubt that much will be done to tighten those rules. Some say the Arab emiratet may simply urge Europe to improve its passport security or provide technical assistance to better detect forgeries.

The growing international political drama over the Dubai assassination could ultimately fizzle, say experts here, and leave many of the same rules and relationships in place, particularly in the case of the UAE, which has limited leverage.

“The only thing” the UAE can do to Europe is say, “the privileges I’m giving to your citizens could be reviewed,” says Mustafa Al Ain, head of security and defense studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

As for Israel, he continues, “possibly they will take pressure now,” but the issue “will die sooner or later.” Over the years Israel has carried out assassinations using passports from Canada and New Zealand but not suffered serious repercussions, he points out.

EU issues ‘strong’ condemnation

For now, public pressure is growing for Israel, whose spy agency, Mossad, is widely believed to have carried out the Jan. 20 murder and forged at least 11 European (two Irish, six British, one French, and two German) passports to do so.

All four countries have brought Israeli envoys in for talks in recent days, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is meeting with several of his counterparts at an EU gathering on Monday to discuss the issue. During the session the EU “strongly condemned” the use of forged passports in the assassination of Mr. Mabhouh.

The statement, however, did not directly mention Israel. As of Saturday, Israel said it was not expecting any major diplomatic fallout with Europe, said Danny Ayalon, a deputy foreign minister.

Dubai has limited leverage

Dubai has raised a ruckus about Israel’s involvement in the murder, threatening to seek the arrest of Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the Arab emirate has no diplomatic ties with Israel with which to exert pressure, and as an aspiring global city it cannot afford to demonize the country.

Instead the UAE is resorting to pressuring Israel through Europe, on Sunday summoning ambassadors and urging a full investigation into the forged passports, and reiterating that it “fully intends” to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“The UAE is deeply concerned by the fact that passports of close allies, whose nationals currently enjoy preferential visa waivers, were illegally used to commit this crime,” a statement from the foreign ministry read.

But the UAE has few sticks to wave at Europe. “These are, after all, the countries that the UAE cannot function without. They’re its military protectors, they’re its oil-and-gas customers,” says Christopher Davidson, author of “Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success” and a lecturer at the University of Durham in Britain.

Shifting blame?

Professor Davidson says Dubai is making noise about Europe’s security lapses and Israel’s involvement in the murder to deflect attention away from itself, and would much prefer to have avoided all the international attention that has exploded in the past month.

Indeed the murder has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Dubai, highlighting the fact that it plays host to controversial figures like Mabhouh, who helped found Hamas’s militant wing, and has been the scene of several high-profile killings, most recently of a Chechen commander and Lebanese pop star.

The death of Mabhouh only began to make news about 10 days after the fact, when his Palestinian supporters began to cry foul, Davidson points out.

“Their hand was forced because Hamas started to discuss it,” he says. “And all the summoning of ambassadors and this and that is a way to disguise” their own mistakes.

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