By Andrew Stevenson www.smh.com.au
This city does not like being associated with high-profile trouble, writes Andrew Stevenson.
FROM the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum should be master of all he surveys.
But there are a few problems for the ruler of Dubai: the murk of dust and exhaust that lays heavy on the desert metropolis makes it very hard to see to the bottom, while the lifts of the newly opened building are not working, making it impossible to get to the top.
In the soup below are enough odd occurrences to which the Sheikh might wish to turn a blind eye, with political intrigues and assassinations and money rolling this way and that like the squat dhows that still ply their trade in the port of Dubai and across the Persian Gulf.
Another problem is that the Burj Khalifa, which rises 828 needle-like metres into the sky, was named after the ruler of both Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa, a month after the far wealthier emirate bailed out Dubai when the full impact of its burst real estate bubble forced the small city state to plead for financial mercy. It is a dream that did not turn out quite to plan: who wants to build their own phallic symbol and then name it after their boss?
Tourists, rightly, judge Dubai to be as safe as houses. But for some visitors it has proven somewhat less secure – in the space of a year, two visiting political figures have been murdered; another colourful character was held prisoner in her apartment before being rendered to Egypt.
The second murder, of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, attributed to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in January, was too much for even Dubai to turn a blind eye to.
The brazen abuse of the passports of dual-nationality Israelis – including those of four Australians – to enable a 27-strong team to repeatedly enter Dubai before murdering Mabhouh on January 20 could not be ignored.
The Dubai police chief, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has been sharply critical of Israel in general and Mossad in particular, releasing many minutes of security camera footage to support his case. Australia and other western nations, including Ireland and Britain, followed suit.
But General Dahi has chosen to leave hidden at least as much as he has revealed. The autopsy report has not been made public, and neither has the crucial footage from the corridor that shows how the killers entered Mr Mabhouh’s room.
Nor has any indication been given of what the Hamas leader charged with organising the flow of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip was doing in Dubai – also on a fake passport and with no security – and where he went between 4pm on January 19, after checking in to his hotel, and 8.24pm, when he returned.
Who had he come to meet? Why would he meet Iranians here and not in Iran, or in Syria where he lived? Mabhouh’s is not the only startling death. Sulim Yamadayev, an opponent of the Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, was shot dead in the car park of an expensive hotel complex in Dubai last April. Dubai police accused Mr Kadyrov’s first cousin Adam Delimkhanov of organising the assassination.
And then there is the strange tale of Malika Karoum, a Dutch-Moroccan woman and former secret service agent, who had moved into money laundering. Karoum was captured in her Dubai apartment by former colleagues from the Dutch security forces and convicted.
Dr Theodore Karasik, an analyst with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, suggests what matters in Dubai is not who you are but how you behave.
”All kinds of politicos come here, either for R and R, or to avoid prosecution in their home countries,” he said. ”They’re accepted if they keep their noses clean; if they make trouble … they will be gone very quickly.”
But trouble is not the only thing that finds its way to Dubai. Airport regulations allow any quantity of cash in any currency to be carried into the country. It is now coming in planeloads from Afghanistan, where, according to airport declarations sighted by The Washington Post, up to $US1 billion
($1.08 billion) a year, more than the government’s annual tax revenue, is being flown in.
Several figures closely connected to the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, own villas in Dubai, and the Post has tied the son of Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, to a $US44 million real estate spree on Dubai’s waterfront – a feat made more impressive by the fact he was only 11 years old. Dr Karasik said: ”There’s a lot of suitcases of money running around from a lot of different sources, so it’s kind of hard to say which is bad money and which is good money.”
But none of this distracts Sheikh Mohammed from his vision, which has propelled Dubai from a ragged port town to an international transport and finance hub in a few decades. The vanity projects keep rolling on.
This week he dropped by the filming of a 30-part TV series based on his poetry. At the end of the month thousands of wealthy visitors will fly in for his annual race day, the Dubai World Cup, where the stakes of $US25 million are dwarfed by the $US2.7 billion spent building the new track and a grandstand 10 storeys high and more than one-kilometre long.
For a day at least, as the world watches his famed Godolphin horses race for his own prizemoney at his own track, Sheikh Mohammed will truly be master of all he surveys.
Andrew Stevenson’s trip was organised by Lexis Sport and Entertainment. The Herald did not pay for the trip.