The lawman

Straight-talking Dubai Police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim speaks out on expat quotas, bounced cheques and the resurgence of the local economy
The lawman
Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamims reputation as a straight talker has endeared him to the emirates local and expat communities
By Ed Attwood
Sun 31 Jul 2011 12:10 PM

A visit to interview one of Dubai’s most recognisable faces is something of a military operation. On disembarking outside the gates of the Dubai Police headquarters located just north of the city’s airport, prospective journalists are met by a limousine and whisked through the compound. It may not look like much from the outside, but this fortified area is several blocks in size, filled with immaculately dressed policemen marching purposefully through various gated areas. Sitting at the top of this well-drilled organisation is Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, a veteran of the force, having spent 41 years on the job, with 24 of them in his current role. His reputation as a straight talker is one of the traits that has endeared him to both Dubai’s local and expatriate communities, but underneath the avuncular and cheery disposition lies a mind that has managed to keep the Middle East’s busiest city secure since the UAE was founded.

Dubai today faces a welter of threats, none of which would be particularly obvious to the man on the street. Whether it’s cybercrime, drugs, gangland hits or even Mossad assassinations, Tamim has dealt with them all in a manner that has left the emirate as the go-to destination of choice for thousands of Arab nationals who are seeking calmer shores after the unrest that has hit the region in the first half of 2011.

For Tamim, corruption has been a major component of that unrest, and it’s still a challenge that he rates highly even within the emirate.

“Corruption is and has been our priority and it is a vital issue in the Arab world too, as we can see an unprecedented backlash because of the spread of corruption in these countries,” he says. “These protests in the street in various countries is the outcome of decades of rampant corruption, this is what we have been hearing from stories emerging from those countries.”

The police chief adds his belief that corruption was behind 70 percent of the social ills that led Tunisians to revolt against their long-standing leader, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, in January this year.

Certainly the perception amongst ordinary Tunisians of their president’s family was not an entirely positive one, despite the litany of portraits that tourists would once have seen when they visited the country. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, was nicknamed ‘the Imelda Marcos of the Middle East’ for her penchant for high-end fashion and lavish lifestyle. Now she — like many of the Ben Ali family — are wanted by the Tunisian judiciary for high treason and money-laundering.

“I wish that every government official would realise the fact that corruption is not a curse that will chase him only, but will also drag others along with him,” says Tamim. “Corruption has been the main and common reason; if it was not for the rampant corruption we would have never seen such anger and reaction in the streets. The Arab world has been very late in combating corruption until things went out of hand and we saw the worst happening.”

However, despite the problems the region has suffered, Tamim says he has no intention of taking the drastic action mandated by Kuwait recently. Due to security concerns, the Gulf state recently slapped a blanket ban on all Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians — along with two other nationalities — from visiting the country. Tamim sympathises with the Kuwaiti predicament, but adds that he thinks the issue is only temporary.

“In Dubai, we have no plans to restrict entry nor visa restriction, and I always say that all the expatriate communities here are well-adjusted to the country and unless there is a very serious crime wave by a certain nationality who may commit evil and grave crimes then such a measure could be taken,” he says. “That possibility is remote, though, as all nationalities here are not that threatening to the peace of society.”

Tamim says that the current security situation in Dubai is “good”, adding that the emirate is already seeing “businesspeople and investors seeking a safe refuge for their investments” through relocation.

“All the Gulf tourists who used to spend the summer break in those countries or in Lebanon are now coming to Dubai due to its vicinity and the safe and secure atmosphere we enjoy here,” Tamim adds.

But it’s not all been plain sailing for the emirate. In the worst days of the recession, media reports from overseas tended to focus on the unsustainable debt run up by many of Dubai’s residents. The UAE, like other countries in the Gulf, considers bounced cheques a criminal offence, and as blank cheques are frequently handed over to secure personal loans or mortgages, the police have often been called in to enforce the system. Tamim says that the problem was not so much that residents wanted flashier cars or clothes, it was more that they took the easy credit on offer here and invested it elsewhere, often with disastrous results.

“I think the problem was not about the ease of lending here; banks could offer financing without getting exposed, and the problem was not about car, real-estate nor personal loans here,” he says. “It might have been so somewhere else but the main problematic issue here was using the loans for unwise investments in the stock market and in speculation in overseas markets without the proper oversight or informed investment decisions.”

The police chief also adds that there are no indebted businessmen currently being held in Dubai jails, although there are “several” cases being settled in the courts.

“Many newcomers or maverick investors became millionaires overnight and they jumped into the wave of excesses in investments without proper plans or informed decisions,” Tamim says. “They did not have any track record in sound investments and they thought it was easy money.”

The real question is, of course, whether the police should be acting as an enforcer in cases that in most other countries are considered to be under civil jurisdiction. The debate is raging as to whether the threat of imprisonment is actually a help or hindrance to Dubai’s economic growth, particularly in the cases of small businesses that frequently need to take on risk in the form of extra financial liability to grow. Prominent Dubai personalities such as Dr Habib Al Mulla have gone on record as saying that the current legislation is more of a hindrance than a help to local firms.

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“The law on personal debt must be changed,” Al Mulla told the Arabian Business Forum in December last year. “Indeed the failure to pay a post-dated cheque is in my opinion no more than a failure than to perform a contract, and it too should not be made criminal. I say it loud and clear — outdated laws have to be outlawed.”

When questioned on this issue, Tamim is in agreement — but is also at pains to point out that as long as the law remains in place, the police will naturally continue to enforce it.

“We are unhappy and we certainly do not think that is the proper way of doing things, but these are issues of individuals’ rights,” he points out. “Still… it is worthy to note that the mere act of writing a cheque without the availability of cash to support is a criminal offence that is punishable by the law. It is understood that a cheque is issued with a bona fide understanding that funds will become available when the payment matures or when it is. Still, we advise against issuing a cheque without having the funds to respect it.”

Tamim is also forthright when it comes to another major area of concern for the UAE’s expatriates. Arab uprisings have forced some Gulf countries to take a closer look at unemployment, with much-heralded plans designed to push locals into the workforce often perceived as failing. Saudi Arabia has been perhaps the most high-profile of these countries; earlier this year, labour minister Adel Fakieh rolled out a new plan that will punish firms that do not hire the required number of nationals by forbidding them to renew their expatriate employees’ visas. Here in the UAE, there have been media reports of expatriates being removed from their positions in Abu Dhabi and being replaced with locals. But Tamim is quick to douse rumours of a similar, country-wide, system being put in place in the UAE.

“No, there is no such thing as special treatment for locals, and we will never force hiring locals because forcing companies to take locals is not productive,” he says. “We will encourage hiring locals on merit and for their suitable qualifications and then we could support those companies who are hiring locals by granting them contracts.

“And based on my experience with the way HH [Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum] the Ruler of Dubai thinks, I see no chance of that happening.”

In fact, the police chief says, the relationship between the UAE’s locals and its expat population has never been healthier, despite the headlines you might read elsewhere. A substantial portion of the British tabloid press tends to paint Dubai as the Gulf version of Ibiza, but Tamim believes that there simply isn’t the need to crack down on the consumption of alcohol here.

“There have never been that many cases that call for more restrictions,” he says. “You do not see drunken people walking erratically in the streets in Dubai. Expats are civil in general about their alcohol consumption. There might be some rare cases but those do not warrant a change of restrictions.”

However, one particular case has caused concern among expats, particularly from the UK. In April, Briton Lee Bradley Brown died in Bur Dubai police station, six days after his arrest on charges relating to the assault of a Nepalese housekeeper at the Burj Al Arab hotel. British newspapers were quick to point the finger at ‘police brutality’, but Tamim says that “if there is any evidence of wrongdoing by Dubai police officers, we will pursue the truth and deal with it in a transparent way — other than that it is hearsay and speculation without grounds.”

“The minute that person was in our custody we called the British consulate to notify them that he was in our custody following a complaint against him,” Tamim adds. “We then moved him to solitary confinement following a clash between him and other prisoners and we have surveillance camera tapes to show that. We have an excellent relationship with the British community in the UAE and our officers are well trained to deal with cultural differences. Thus, all rumours tarnishing the Dubai Police force’s reputation on flimsy grounds are mere hearsay.”

And with Ramadan approaching, Tamim says that his department has always tried to take a softly-softly approach with expats who may have unwittingly stepped out of line. Courtesy — on both sides — is the watchword here, he indicates, citing the recent example of the arrest of an individual over a case of mistaken identity. That incident ended up costing Dubai Police AED50,000 ($13,600) in compensation.

“Usually most expatriates would respect our Ramadan habits and would comply upon alerting them for the need to avoid eating and they accept that with a polite response most of the time,” he adds. “And any policeman who behaves in an offending way to people would be taken to court.”

But despite Dubai’s overall success in not only attracting workers from all over the world due to its reputation as a ‘safe’ destination, Tamim says there is still much work to be done. He cites the recent Rule of Law Index, which rates the UAE as thirteenth globally in terms of its ability to implement a transparent legal framework. The country came first in the region, beating out Jordan, Iran, Lebanon and Morocco.

“We will strive for the number one position in that index,” he says. “Sheikh Mohammed is to send delegates to the number-one country to see the best practices there [Sweden and Norway topped this year’s index, with New Zealand close behind], and that will be our next challenge.”

As you would expect, Tamim is also pretty positive on Dubai’s future, especially on the back of events throughout the Arab world in the first half of the year.

When questioned as to what the emirate’s biggest security threat is, he says that the UAE in general is more safe than ever, with the recovery taking hold.

“Dubai is back in full force especially when you see the recent plan for the expansion of Dubai airport,” he adds. “This is surely an indication of the trust in Dubai, its economy and its future. It is also a sign of determination and resilience.”

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Dubai's police chief on… the Hamas killing

In January last year, Lt Gen Tamim hit headlines across the world as the lawman tasked with finding the killers of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, the Hamas official assassinated in a luxury Dubai hotel. Using the latest techniques in police work, Tamim quickly implicated Israel as being the entity behind a bewildering array of suspects who were caught on camera using bizarre disguises. In an embarrassment to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency that Tamim says was behind the hit, pictures of the team members were seen on TV screens and newspapers the world over, resulting in reprimands from several countries who believed that their passports had been fraudulently copied.

Eighteen months on, is the case any closer to completion?

“No, it is very open,” Tamim says. “It will never be closed until all the offenders are caught and brought to account.”

However, despite Dubai Police’s best efforts, it still seems uncertain as to whether the case will ever be resolved. Last year, Tamim said he was “99 percent certain” that Israel was behind the attack, and he has seen nothing in the intervening eighteen months that has convinced him to change his mind.

“There have been some countries who have responded in a positive way, others were unable to counter the tremendous Israeli pressure to muzzle the writs and issues related to the persons involved in the assassination.”

Dubai’s police chief on... traffic fatalities

If there’s one area of serious concern in the UAE, it’s that of crashes on the country’s highways. On a global level, the UAE is one of the most dangerous nations in the world for drivers, and Dubai Police is hard at work trying to combat this unwelcome trend.

In that vein, Tamim is pushing hard to reach an ambitious goal of no fatalities on Dubai’s roads by the year 2020. “We are ahead of plans with the latest numbers as there are reductions year-on-year and we were expecting fourteen fatalities per year for every 100,000 people and we had only seven fatalities last year,” he says. “From my long experience, I learnt that controlling “hot” roads that witness repeated accidents will help us curb those accidents. When I noticed three years ago that such roads are emerging in the data, I advised our colleagues in the traffic department to determine those areas to reduce speed there and to deploy speed cameras there and that has contributed in the reduction of accidents and deaths from accidents.”

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