THE MAGAZINE

Dubai: Terrorist Target?

By Robert Elliott

Western governments have designated Dubai as a potential target of terrorism. Local experts, however, say the threat is minimal.

Dubai, the second largest of the United Arab Emirates and one of the fastest-growing, has been designated a potential target for extremists by several Western governments. Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns of the risks of travel to the country based on its central location in the Persian Gulf, the nearby hostilities of the Iraq war, and regional anti-Western sentiment.

Other Western countries have issued similar warnings. Foreigners are advised to be vigilant when visiting public places including hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and entertainment spots where expatriates congregate.

But the booming emirate's central city, with its a la Las Vegas neon lights running along wide desert boulevards, does not give any hint of danger on the ground, and security experts who live and work there see little risk.

"The Emirates are stable enough, well-run enough, well-enough policed, economically prosperous enough, and have competent enough security services to not be an attractive target�and not to have the conditions within their own society that foster extremism and terrorism," says James Blount, the general manager of the Middle East region for the London-based Control Risks consultancy.

Local security experts say Dubai has been unfairly tarred by the same terrorism brush that smears places like Yemen and Saudi Arabia. "If you look at those travel warnings in more detail - those from the Australian, U.S., and French embassies, for example - it's actually just a renewal of the generic threat around the region as a whole," says Paul Mercer, operations manager for the Middle East Crisis and Security Consulting wing of Control Risks.

Other experts say terrorists will not target Dubai because they might hurt their own money laundering operations, which benefit from the emirate�s position as a hub for finance, commerce, and international tourism.

"I don't think any terrorist organization will conduct any huge operation in Dubai or in the UAE, because it's just like shooting yourself in the foot," says Rabih Fayad, intelligence manager for the Middle East and Africa for International SOS. Money laundering is facilitated by the UAE's status as a major financial center, light regulation of informal banking, and the country's use as a transshipment point for drugs from Southwest Asia.

Politically, Fayad says Dubai does not incite the fury of extremists because it is not viewed as a 'pro-Western Muppet' like nearby Saudi Arabia. "The ruling family is not known to say yes all the time" to Western wishes, he says. Case in point, Dubai refused to allow Western coalition troops to use its facilities during Desert Storm.

And whereas the heavy Western presence in Dubai would seem to make it a juicy target for terrorists, security analysts say the opposite is true based on a lack of indigenous dissent and the high standard of living enjoyed by all.

Dubai is unusual in that its population of 1.3 million people consists mainly of expatriates. The majority hails from South Asia and Southeast Asia, while the bars, restaurants, and offices teem with more than 100,000 Britons and other Westerners.

The relative minority of nationals enjoy a per capita income among the highest in the world. "There is no large section of disenfranchised indigenous people here," says James Le Mesurier, an advisor for Olive Group, a global security risk and management company headquartered locally.

The risk of a terrorist attack is also mitigated by the security measures the emirate has implemented at its borders. In addition, the government has begun shoring up its military, with help from the West. "There is a lot of spending here by the Brits and by the Americans with regard to the UAE armed forces�and lots of training," says Stuart Adam, regional security advisor for International SOS in the Middle East and Africa.

Security experts praise the UAE's installation of biometric technology and its overall tight security at ports of entry. "They've got a forward-thinking approach toward the use of technology," says Le Mesurier.

While they are more sanguine than Western governments, the region's security officials do not rule out risk entirely. "When you drive around, you don't think about it, because Dubai doesn't make you feel like you are in the Middle East. It feels benign," says Adam. But, when asked if an attack will come, he responds: "One day it probably will."

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