DUBAI (Reuters) - If Israel was behind the murder of a Hamas commander in Dubai, then it chose its ground well: a bustling trade and tourism hub, known for its anonymity and openness, and in the United Arab Emirates with which Israel has no ties to break.
Choosing other locations such as China or Syria to carry out the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which local police insist was carried out by Israel, would have caused much greater political damage should anything have gone wrong, while also posing operational challenges.
The 27 suspects sought by Dubai over Mabhouh’s death in a luxury hotel room in January would have blended in perfectly with the cosmopolitan and transient population of the emirate, which attracts expatriates and tourists from all over the world.
“It’s much easier to work in a place like Dubai than, say, Somalia or Sudan, where such a large number of foreigners would immediately attract notice,” said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad field officer.
Killing Mabhouh in Damascus, where he had lived since 1989, would have been more difficult due to heightened security in the Syrian capital since a car bomb killed Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh there in 2008 — a death Hezbollah blames Israel for.
In China, where Mabhouh was heading after Dubai, a team of foreign assassins would have surely stood out. A hit there would also have carried significant political risks for Israel, which has extensive trade and diplomatic ties with Beijing.
“But with the UAE, they have nothing. They have no relations, no representation,” Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani said.
Israelis are typically not admitted to the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai’s trade links with Iran have long irked the Jewish state, even more so as Tehran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program shows no sign of abating.
Nonetheless, some links have been quietly built. According to Israel’s Channel 10 television, Israel has $1.5 billion of annual trade with Arab states that do not formally recognize the Jewish state, of which 8 percent goes through Dubai.
The UAE’s ambitions to become a global business and diplomatic hub mean it sometimes has compromised on its stance toward Israel. An Israeli cabinet minister attended a conference in the capital Abu Dhabi in January, marking the first visit of an Israeli minister to the Gulf state.
Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer competed in the Dubai Championships last month, a year after a move to deny her entry to the UAE prompted criticism from players and officials.
Dubai’s history as a regional center for trade means the emirate has always had to stay relatively open to the comings and goings of people of all nationalities and walks of life.
The suspects’ fraudulent European and Australian identities would have drawn little attention from immigration officers at Dubai’s international airport, which sees around 40 million passengers a year. For citizens of many EU countries, visas to the UAE are free and granted on arrival.
Mabhouh, who according to Israeli and Palestinian sources played a key role in smuggling Iranian-funded arms to militants in Gaza, felt so comfortable in Dubai that he did not even come with security.
“People can come here and feel that they are safe from their political enemies, and this has also been a rest-stop for individuals where they can move about freely without feeling like they will be targeted anytime soon,” said Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
So long as individuals do not promote a political platform they are welcome in the emirate, Karasik said, adding that Dubai’s geopolitical location — just a few hours from security hotspots such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq, also partly explains why it attracts certain types.
“We are in a tough neighborhood,” Karasik said.
Controversial political figures — from former Somali warlords to the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto to disgraced former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra — have all at some point come to live in Dubai.
“It’s really part of Dubai’s life-blood. The unfortunate side-effect is that you can get brutal violent killings taking place every now and then,” said British historian Christopher Davidson.
Violent crime is a rarity in Dubai, but Mabhouh’s assassination is the third high-profile murder in the emirate in two years.
Last year, former Chechen military commander Sulim Yamadayev was gunned down in an underground car park of a luxury seaside apartment block in Dubai.
A Lebanese pop star, Suzanne Tamim, was stabbed to death at her posh apartment in Dubai in 2008. A billionaire Egyptian businessman and politician was later sentenced to death in Cairo for hiring a hit man to kill Tamim, reported to be his lover.
The assassination of Mabhouh in Dubai should not be taken as sign that the peaceful emirate will become another outlet for the region’s violent undercurrents, but it could spell the end of Dubai as a haven for those with trouble at home.
“I think that the authorities here are going to be more careful about who comes here if they are involved in these political tussles,” Karasik said.
“They will be more alert to this because they don’t need any more bad press.”
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Samia Nakhoul