Dubai's controversial police chief speaks out - again

Dubai's controversial police chief speaks out - again
Analysis: Dubai's police chief, Dhahi Khalfan al-Tamim, is known for speaking his mind, which has made him a renegade and maverick hero in the Gulf, says Alain Gresh.
7 min read
22 May, 2015
Tamim's statements have rustled feathers in the UAE establishment [AFP]
The war in Yemen and the Syrian conflict has led the region to spiral into a series of conflicts, causing concern for leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere. 

In Dubai, the deputy chief of police is not shy about giving his views on the region's developments.

With such a senior position in Dubai's police force, and as head of the general security service - led directly by the emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed al-Makhtoum - Dhahi Khalfan al-Tamim's opinion is invaluable in the fight against "terrorism", despite being personally viewed as a shadowy figure.

To the point

But Tamim does not fear controversy and avoids doublespeak. He claims that, since he does not occupy any political position, his views are his own.

Should we believe him? In any case, nobody appears able to prevent him from speaking his mind. Frankly, it's a rare quality in a region where leaders do not usually confide in the media.

A poet in his free time, Tamim has a Twitter account which he uses to voice his opinions - even if they don't necessarily reflect the official line of the Dubai state, which usually aligns with regional allies - particularly Saudi Arabia.

Tamim's office is located in the heart of a huge complex dealing with counter-terrorism, drug trafficking and reckless driving. 

In Tamim's ranks are many foreigners who help monitor the Emirates' huge expatriate population - which accounts for as much as 90 percent of Dubai's estimated two million population.

Surrounded by two officers in uniform, Tamim receives us in his traditional white kandoora. 

"A few decades ago, I carried a khanjar [dagger], because there were no applicable laws or policemen to protect us when we commuted. Now we use them as decorations in our homes," he said.

"[Now] If we face a problem we go to the police. We do not  need to carry arms anymore."

He obviously has Yemen on his mind, as every man there is armed and carries a Kalashnikov, along with a dagger. 

"Here, we have a state," he proudly concluded.

No more James Bond

Tamim had his moment of global fame when a leading figure in Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was assasinated in Dubai in 2010.

Although Israeli agents suspected of killing Mabhouh fled the country before the crime was discovered, Dubai police quickly identified the killers, released their photos and passed the file to Interpol.

The police here also arrested two Palestinians suspected of providing information to Israel. Officers concluded that there were about 30 suspects involved in the crime and that they carried European passports - but only the UK expelled an Israeli diplomat in retaliation. 

"Mossad was convinced that Arabs would not be able to conduct the investigation to the end. But we succeeded, and Haaretz, the Israeli daily, noted that 'the James Bond era was over'," he said.

Will the broadcast of a new Israeli series about Mossad action rekindle the debate about this assassination?

Tamim had no illusions about Interpol's handling of UAE demands to arrest the assassins: "We are well aware of the Israeli influence on many governments of the world."

At the same time, he was careful to note that, despite Israel's use of passports of western Jewish citizens, ordinary members of the Jewish community should not be conflated with Mossad and its operations.

Tamim was widely criticised in 2013 for stating that it was the Muslim Brotherhood, and not  Israel, that was the Arabs' public enemy number one.

What about Palestine? 

"[The problem is that] Palestinians are not united," he said, blaming them, in a way, for the diplomatic deadlock. 

Over the past three years, Tamim has escalated his attacks against the Brotherhood. He even went as far as declaring "if the Muslim Brothers threaten Gulf security, the bloodshed will swamp them", in the summer of 2012.

This announcement was the prelude to a general offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE.

Dozens of militants suspected of being members of the group have since been arrested and given harsh sentences following sloppy trials. The accused, in turn, alleged that they had been tortured in custody.

Tamim also demanded that the UAE "reclaim", ie: annex, Qatar - for Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. 

After Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown, Tamim said: "It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to put on a new mask and enhance its behaviour to be accepted by the Arabs and the West."

Will the Brotherhood be able to find a spot to occupy in the political arena? The police chief burst into laughter, "With the Arabs, one can expect anything."

Current concerns

The situation in the Gulf, notably the war in Yemen, is at the heart of Tamim's concerns. A few days ago, a dispute broke out between Tamim - who has more than 900,000 followers on Twitter - and the UAE's foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who has 1.7 million.
     Some people asked if he wanted al-Houthi dead or alive? "Alive, of course. I work with the police."

The controversy revolved around the role of Houthi ally and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

Soldiers loyal to Saleh are facing the full brunt of air raids from a Saudi-led coalition. 

To better understand this controversy, one should remember that the UAE is made up of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman and Umm al-Quwain.

Although the UAE has a federal government, each emirate is autonomous on certain levels, including foreign policy.

Clearly, Tamim and Nahyan - who hails from Abu Dhabi - do not share exactly the same views. 

Neither Yemen's President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi nor Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, who both hail from the south, have a huge influence in Yemen. In any case, the south only represents a minority of the population.

The north is more heavily populated, and its tribes have huge influence, not to mention that Saleh and his family still have a major say in how the army is run.

Saleh might have played a losing card in supporting the Houthis, but he still has his allies. "You cannot have one finger in too many pies. And the Houthis are the main  danger," Tamim said. 

The Houthis' political clout, even among fellow Zaydi-Shia Muslims, is overestimated, Tamim added. 

On Twitter, he once promised to pay one million dirhams ($272,000), from his own money - although he is not that rich - to anyone who captured Abdel Malek al-Houthi.

Some people asked him, dead or alive? "Alive, of course. I work with the police," he replied.

Tamim does not believe the solution to the crisis should be  military, and he is certain that the foreign intervention won't last. Undoubtedly, his words were an indirect criticism of Saudi Arabia's policy towards Yemen and a hint at certain tensions between its coalition partners. 

"During the first ten days, we achieved two strategic objectives: the destruction of the Houthis' long-range missiles and the aircraft they had seized," he said.

But why is the offensive still in progress, knowing that ultimately there should be a political solution and elections?

Tamim recalled Afghanistan, where "we waged jihad and eliminated al-Qaeda". He could not ignore the fact that Operation Decisive Storm strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which, despite fighting the Houthis, is understood to have its eyes set on the Gulf monarchies - and primarily Saudi Arabia. 

Likewise, even though Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar seem to agree on an escalation of the military campaign against the Syrian regime, Tamim favours a political arrangement.

"If the US and Russia agree to a political solution, who are we to oppose it?," he asked.

Although Tamim, like other leading Gulf figures, fears Iran, he recalled that he was the first to suggest that the UAE join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). He acknowledged that there was no Iranian presence in  Yemen, but insisted Iran was indirectly supporting the Houthis. 

"They are repeating the Lebanese scenario. They are paying people and forming a pro-Iranian party like Hizballah. They took advantage of the weakness of other forces," he said.

Tamim also highlighted the recent declaration of an Iranian official, who said that there were now four Arab capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa) that were controlled by Tehran's allies - and that their influence is growing in Gaza.

This is despite Hamas distancing themselves from Iran's ally, Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad, who continues to stand his ground against all odds.

These declarations led to a wave of controversy in the Gulf.

"Hizballah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had said four years ago that Iran would soon control Bab al-Mandeb [the coastal strait off Yemen]. Now, he claims that Iran's role is purely humanitarian," Tamim added. 

When asked him about the nuclear agreement between Tehran and Washington, he said that Iran had a choice to make. "It can either respect international rights and rejoin the international community, or it can risk facing the same fate as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein."

Adopting a rhetoric structure used by former US president George W Bush, he said: "Iran can either continue to direct the axis of evil, or it can give up its hegemonic and imperial inclinations."

Neither is he delighted by the prospect of an escalation of tensions between Iran and the Arab world.

"The risk of a sectarian war is real - but contrary to all principles of civilisation, and this war would isolate us from the developments taking place in other parts of the world," he said.

Tamim is also aware that Dubai's prosperity depends on stability in the region. US pressure has seen trade with Iran decrease, which has in turn reduced the emirate's role as an "economic back garden" for Iran.

A sectarian war would be disastrous for Dubai, as there are many Iranians living there, and significant proportion of Dubai citizens have roots in Iran.

This article was first published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.