Not on my watch

Dubai Police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim discusses embezzlement, espionage and terrorism.
Not on my watch
By Andrew White
Sun 27 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

When he unravelled the mystery of who killed Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in January, Dubai Police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim shot to international fame as the Arab world's leading law enforcer. Here the man leading the line against crime in the Middle East's most famous city discusses embezzlement, espionage and terrorism.

Dahi khalfan tamim's office is a blend of tradition and technology. On his desk there is a magnifying glass, a pen, and a notepad - essential kit for generations of policemen. And to its side there is a bank of computer screens, flickering and fluttering with updates and breaking information.

Then there is the Lieutenant General himself, sitting in a leather-backed chair, a ream of printouts in one hand and the other outstretched in greeting. Forty years a policeman, Tamim has been chief of Dubai Police for 23 of them, which is longer than all of his predecessors put together.

He is also, following his work to expose the murderers of Hamas official Mahmoud Al Mabhouh earlier this year, the Arab world's most high-profile lawman.

Thanks to the efforts of Tamim and his team, Israel was implicated in an elaborate assassination involving false beards, wigs, tennis gear and knockout drugs - and a death that was initially attributed to natural causes is now at the centre of a murder investigation which has prompted significant political fallout.

Most arresting was the dramatic frame-by-frame reconstruction of the killers' movements, gleaned from exhaustive CCTV footage and supplemented by state-of-the-art forensic work. Dubai Police splashed the suspects' faces across television screens the world over, and in so doing helped to identify a sophisticated network of passport fraud. In one press conference, Tamim launched a manhunt and became a star.

Today he is optimistic Al Mabhouh's killers will be scooped up by law enforcement agencies around the world.

"It is very likely that more will face justice, I very much expect that," he says. "They are wanted worldwide for the murder and for forging passports of many countries. I think the Israelis have committed a big mistake they should not have committed."

It was Tamim who pointed the first official finger in the direction of the Knesset. In March he told Al Jazeera television that he "would ask the Dubai prosecutor to issue arrest warrants for... [Israeli prime minster Benjamin] Netanyahu, and the head of Mossad". He said he was "99 percent certain" that Israeli agents were involved in the killing, and his confidence has not wavered in the intervening months.

"If Netanyahu has signed the order to kill Al Mabhouh in Dubai, then he should be held accountable for it," Tamim says now.

"There is no way to prove it, except if one of the murderers falls and confesses that Netanyahu gave and signed the kill order," he continues. "But Israel or any other government should not be involved in the forgery of passports. Nor should it sign criminal orders to kill outside its borders through assassinations, this would be very bad. Dubai has never threatened nor violated Israeli sovereignty."

Relations between Dubai and Israel have plumbed new depths in the wake of the Al Mabhouh murder. Prior to the killing Dubai had allowed Israelis with dual citizenship to use a second passport to enter the emirate. In March, however, Tamim warned that this might change and said the police would begin to use racial profiling to weed out potential troublemakers, identifying them "through their face or when they speak any other language".

So three months on, is Dubai Police employing racial profiling to identify potential suspects as they enter the country?

"Let me say this: if we are able to find out those with dual citizenship, then we can narrow down suspicious people who might be Mossad agents," he explains. "We need to identify that, as those with dual citizenship have two loyalties that require extra attention on our part; they could be after many things that are not straightforward."
Prior to the Al Mabhouh murder, Dubai Police's most high-profile case had been the July 2008 murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim (no relation). The 30 year-old was found stabbed and partially decapitated in a Dubai apartment, but thanks to the application of high-tech forensic techniques, Tamim's team soon turned up a motive, a murderer, and a millionaire.

Last year, security guard Muhsen El Sukkari was sentenced to death by an Egyptian court for the gruesome killing. Also convicted was Hesham Talaat Moustafa, a member of parliament in Egypt's ruling party and the man alleged to have paid for the hit, which has been described as an act of revenge after Tamim ended an extramarital affair with Moustafa.

During the retrial, however, El Sukkari's chief lawyer has attempted to cast doubt on the DNA evidence collected at the scene. It is a slur that clearly offends Tamim, and although he says he has "no issue" with Moustafa's case as the tycoon took no part in the actual killing, the police chief argues that if El Sukkari is allowed to go free then the use of DNA evidence in court might as well be discounted for future cases.

"If that happens then they are saying that DNA is not incriminating evidence, that it might as well be abolished from cases," he says forcefully. "We have El Sukkari's shirt which is covered in blood stains from the murdered victim. It is on his shirt."

Such forthright conviction is typical of the man. Over the course of our interview, Tamim will engage frankly in discussion of a wide ranging number of controversial issues. Only on a couple of subjects does he become reticent - on the decency laws that have seen British tourists dragged through Dubai Courts, and on the threat of terrorism.

"We have no serious regional or internal political conflicts; other big regional players are more into politics," he says, when asked whether Dubai is a potential target for a terror attack. "We are more into economic development, providing a suitable environment for trade and local business, and our heritage is to avoid any political entanglements and strife."

Tamim smiles when asked if his otherwise straight-talking approach has ever caused problems in a part of the world where officials do not always wear their hearts on their sleeves.

"It is a source of happiness to be open and frank," he responds, adding that his no-nonsense style owes much to the encouragement of the man who hired him in the first place, and to whom Tamim reports every evening - Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.

"Sheikh Mohammed instructed me back in the 1980s to be more open and transparent with the public and the media," Tamim recalls. "When I was appointed as head of police, he told me to adopt [a policy of] maximum honesty and credibility, whether their arguments are for or against you."

In that spirit, Tamim is sanguine when it comes to the Western press' coverage of Dubai. He admits that the emirate made "mistakes" during its boom years, and acknowledges that the Western press was "legitimate" in some of its criticism of Dubai during the downturn.

"We might have been carried away in our expansion plans, and there were mistakes," he says. "However, it is an experience to learn the consequences of overconfidence on the part of some officials and companies.

"Some of the Western media outlets which criticised Dubai during the financial crisis were giving legitimate criticism," he adds. "Even those who criticise Dubai, they are just trying to do their jobs and analyse what is happening. Some may hit the point, some may miss it, but still all are legitimate endeavours."

So who is really to blame for Dubai's economic troubles? And will anybody be called to account for the apparent mismanagement of government-backed firms that have sunk billions of dollars into debt?

"Those who embezzle government money are the ones we want most," says Tamim firmly. "Financial and white-collar corruption is corruption, be it mismanagement or negligence or embezzlement, and it should be punished."
According to Tamim, resignations are "not enough", and offenders should be handed lifelong bans from holding public office: "People caught mismanaging government resources one day should not later appear as a reformer in another government position."

What's more, he cautions that there may be "some figures who do not qualify to be in their current positions" - and it's hard to believe he does not have specific names in mind as he says it.

The upshot is that any Emiratis who might have thought they could depend on special treatment had better think again. And that does not just apply to those at the very top: the climate is such that there can be no cast-iron guarantees of job security for any UAE national in Dubai.

In February 2009, Tamim prompted vigorous debate when he warned that arbitrary layoffs of UAE nationals by private sector companies were in breach of the law and the country's traditions. He said the police would boycott companies that terminated nationals at short notice, using the global crisis as an excuse.

Today he downplays the impact of Emirati layoffs, describing them as "not a big issue", and pointing out that only a scattering of indigenous employees have lost their jobs in the wake of the recession.

"In the US and other countries the loss of jobs has affected a large percentage of the population, but here it is nothing," Tamim shrugs. "How many locals have been dismissed do you think? These are only tens, 30 or 40 perhaps?

"Companies have their own interests to take care of, and market forces should take their course with staffing requirements."

For all nationalities, the economic climate has changed in the emirate. The issue of debt has become a hot-button topic for Dubai residents ever since the global credit crunch hit Gulf shores, battering the emirate's real estate market and draining foreign investment out of the city.

Property prices have slumped as much as 50 percent, banks have reduced mortgage lending, and speculators have fled - a turn of events that has left thousands struggling to meet their financial obligations, and fearing imprisonment.

Dubai law stipulates that anyone who bounces a cheque, or defaults on a scheduled debt repayment, goes directly to jail until they are able to pay the arrears. It is legislation designed to instill caution and encourage responsible borrowing; it is also cited as a reason why many are choosing to take flight rather than settle their outstanding dues. Perhaps with that in mind, Tamim suggests that now is a time for dialogue, not diktats.

"If a person is ready to reschedule his debt to repay it, and has no problem with paying back that debt, then we will not start a case against him," he says. "However, if financial difficulties prevent him paying back his debt or bad cheques, then we have no option but to transfer him to the courts."

Moreover, he argues that the banks must take some responsibility for excess lending on mortgages. Gone are the days when banks in Dubai would place adverts bearing the legend ‘We lend to anyone', but the customer should not necessarily pay because banks overextended in the good times, and are looking to claw back cash.

"If a bank stops financing you or a [real estate] project, then the courts should recognise that your cheque has not bounced due to a premeditated default with bad intentions, but because the financing was stopped by the bank," Tamim says. "In my opinion, the bank should be held liable."

As the interview draws to a close, I ask about the wide rack of medals pinned to Tamim's chest. The police chief clearly remembers what each one is for, and when it was awarded - not bad going, considering the huge number of brightly coloured buttons fastened to his tunic.

"These are across 40 years of police work," he grins. "In that time life has changed hugely, and today in Dubai there is a wide mixture of people and cultures. But not once have we thought we might not be able to deal with everything that happens."

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.