DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) -This oil-rich Persian Gulf state has outfitted high-rises with the latest security, installed an iris-recognition ID system and nearly completed a 500-mile-long barrier along its borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia.
With such efforts, the United Arab Emirates has created one of the world’s most comprehensive homeland security and anti-terrorism systems. That has kept Dubai — the jewel in the nation’s crown and a stop on President Bush’s Mideast trip — free from the Islamic extremist attacks that have plagued other countries in the region.
Al-Qaeda’s American spokesman, Adam Gadahn, urged the group’s fighters in a weekend videotape to attack Bush with “bombs and booby-trapped vehicles” during his Mideast tour. The FBI said it was scrutinizing the tape for any information that might signal a specific threat or shed light on al-Qaeda planning.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt — all on the itinerary of the presidential tour that begins Wednesday — have fought back hard against the terror threat in recent years, rounding up militants and tightening security. Yet only the UAE, and some less prominent countries like Oman, have largely escaped threats or attacks.
However, many anti-terror analysts believe the threat in Dubai is growing — fueled by the city’s image as a bastion of Western-style capitalism and nightlife, its new status as home to the world’s tallest building and the frequent port calls by U.S. Navy ships. Alcohol flows freely in its many hotel bars, and bikini-clad Western tourists soak up the sun on its beaches.
“There are all kinds of radical actors out there who view Dubai as a symbol of Western debauchery in the Middle East,” said Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department terrorism expert who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In a video marking the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the United States, Osama bin Laden lambasted capitalism and multinational corporations, calling their leaders the real terrorists and threats to human freedom. The al-Qaeda leader did not mention Dubai by name, but nowhere in the Middle East are the targets of his ire flourishing with such intensity.
Some anti-terrorism analysts argue that established extremist groups like al-Qaeda have their hands full with higher priority operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. But others point to the potential threat from “self-starter” terrorists, like those who attacked Madrid and London, who take guidance from leaders like bin Laden but are not reliant on them for support.
“The growth and disorganization of the jihadist movement means that the threat level in Dubai will go up over time,” said Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Dubai’s government rarely speaks publicly of its efforts to counter extremists, apparently worried about endangering its image as the Mideast’s business hub by associating the city with terrorism. It did not respond to numerous inquiries by The Associated Press for this article.
Tourism is booming, indicating most tourists find the risk low.
Ibrahim al-Aktar, a Saudi who comes to Dubai for work, expressed confidence in the government’s efforts.
“They have a good security system here,” al-Aktar said while shopping in an enormous mall. “It would be difficult to bomb Dubai — at least, I hope it would be.”
But many Dubai citizens privately say they are concerned about the threat of a terrorist attack. Most are reluctant to express such views publicly for fear of attracting unwanted government attention.
Rumors of foiled attacks abound, and the government’s silence has fueled theories that UAE officials or Arabs with Dubai investments have somehow cut deals with extremists to get them to leave the city alone.
The government refused to comment on such accusations, and former U.S. officials and homeland security experts who have worked in Dubai say they have found no evidence backing these claims.
They instead point to the UAE’s homeland security infrastructure, which is backed by abundant resources and an intense, behind-the-scenes government focus often lacking in the West.
“They are willing to invest financial resources and logistical assets that make a plan move faster than you would see in the West,” said Chris St. George, managing director of the Dubai-based Olive Group, one of the city’s leading security consultants.
Among the UAE’s steps so far: construction of a 500-mile-long fence along the borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia and iris scanning of all foreigners who enter the UAE on a visa.
“The UAE was the first to do something on this scale with iris recognition,” said Joe O’Carroll, vice president of IrisGuard Inc., the European company that installed the system.
Because so many of Dubai’s buildings and facilities, like airports, are new, the government has been able to install the latest technology more easily.
“They can build the finest security into their new infrastructure as it is constructed, unlike the U.S. and in Europe where it has to be retrofitted into the older installations, like ports, airports and critical infrastructure,” said David Stone, former head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
Experts acknowledge that threats remain, including the possibility of radicalization among the UAE’s large foreign worker population.
“They are tightly controlled, but there is recognition throughout the Persian Gulf region that foreign workers present a security threat,” said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
The UAE, which sits just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, has a long coast and remote desert borders, making it vulnerable to infiltration despite the port security and new border fence, one leading Western security consultant said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.
Even the world’s best security system can’t provide 100 percent protection, the consultant noted — adding that he is surprised the UAE hasn’t been attacked already.