As the investigation into the Dubai assassination of a Hamas official expands abroad and pushes Israel further on the back foot, the man who set it in motion, Dubai’s outspoken police chief, has gone surprisingly quiet.
He made no comment Tuesday after Britain offered the first outside confirmation of his claim that Israel was involved in the Jan. 19 killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Foreign Secretary David Miliband accused Israel of forging British passports used by the hit-squad suspects and expelled an Israeli diplomat in response.
The silence marks a change for Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the stern police chief with thick-rimmed glasses who seized the spotlight as it swung toward him over the assassination. He stretched 15 minutes of fame into weeks of international headlines, holding press audiences with impressive evidence and insulting zingers at Israel. “Even the disguise was primitive,” he told reporters. “If they want a training course in disguise, we would be happy to oblige.”
Tamim is famous here in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a rare government official who speaks freely. Emiratis say he's earned the clout to say what he likes by being good at his job, which he has held since 1980, longer than all of his predecessors combined.
Why the chief is holding his tongue now remains unclear. Did he grow too feisty and get silenced by the UAE's ruling families? Is it all part of the plan? In either case, the latest development from Britain furthers both of his apparent goals: to continue the investigation and to keep the heat on Israel.
A serious cop
The Mabhouh murder is not the first high-profile case that Tamim has overseen. In 2007, he nabbed members of the Pink Panthers international crime gang after they rammed their cars into a mall and sped off with $4 million worth of jewelry. Tamim vowed to identify the thieves within a week – drawing skepticism – and did. Three suspects were soon arrested. Others were later caught in Europe with the help of Interpol and other agencies.
Locals felt so proud at the time that they created a Facebook fan page for “Dubai’s one of a kind” police commander.
“I didn’t think it could happen, he did it and well this is in honour of the Chief and his force,” the creator of the webpage wrote in a post.
Tamim’s reputation soared again after he unraveled two prominent murders, one a famous Lebanese pop singer in 2008 and another, a Chechen dissident a year later.
“If anything happens in Dubai, he can catch it,” says Sheikha Al Suweidi, a housewife from Abu Dhabi.
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.
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.
He has also fanned the controversy of Emiratis feeling lost in their own country as the expat population swells. At the height of Dubai’s construction boom and foreign influx in 2008, he criticized both policies as a threat to Emiratis, urging that the number of outsiders be capped and that locals have more children. “I’m afraid we are building towers but losing the Emirates,” he warned.
“He’s able to say stuff that’s blatantly contradictory,” says Jim Krane, author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. “Others get fired for much less.”
Last year, as the financial crisis sank one company after another, Tamim threatened a police boycott against any firm that laid off Emiratis “under the pretext of the current economic meltdown.” The warning was seen as a challenge to a major local firm, Al Futtaim, which had recently dismissed 20 locals.
Anger, then silence
Tamim fired off similar tough talk as the Mabhouh investigation intensified. It was the biggest murder case to ever hit Dubai, and was seen as a brazen attack on the emirate’s openness. It came at a stressful time for the chief. The financial crisis had dealt the emirate a major blow. With jobs being cut and wages squeezed, crime was on the rise. Tamim’s mother, whom he used to visit in the mornings before work, passed away in early February just as the case was heating up.
Tamim’s studious presentation of evidence gave way to outlandish threats. He had debuted with a stunning 27-minute video following suspects from their arrival at the airport to the hotel where they killed Mabhouh. He had released the photos and information from the forged passports as well as a detailed chart showing when the suspects entered and exited the country.
Then he vowed to ban Israelis from entering Dubai on second passports, raising eyebrows about racial profiling by saying they would be identified by their accents and faces. He called for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He ordered spies across the Gulf region to leave “or face extreme measures.” He challenged Israel’s spy agency Mossad to hand over its spies for DNA testing and vowed to resign if the identities didn’t match.
At the same time, behind the scenes, Tamim was sharing additional evidence with Interpol, prompting it to issue arrest notices for all 27 suspects and join an international task force in the investigation.
Then, Tamim went silent.
He may be working with Interpol and other countries as the investigation runs its natural course outside Dubai. He may be holding his fire to secure a promise from Israel that this won’t happen again. (Because the UAE lacks diplomatic relations with Israel, public pressure and private talks are its main tools for dealing with the country.)
He may have been asked to tone it down. A few days before Tamim disappeared from center stage, he received a visit from Qatar, one of the few Arab states that recognize Israel, sparking rumors that it wanted him to stop making a scene.
But many analysts, and certainly his fans, don’t think he should feel embarrassed.
Dubai police have “blown a lid on government intelligence hits. I don’t think anybody’s going to do this in Dubai anymore unless they really don’t” care about being caught, says Mr. Krane.
A Saudi who has lived in Dubai for three years says that, despite the empty threats, Tamim will come out on top. “Even if he doesn’t achieve [the arrest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], it won’t make him look bad. He’s already made Israel look bad.
“He’s a professional,” continued the Saudi, who asked not to be identified. “He’s been doing this a long time.”