DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – For years, the glitzy Persian Gulf emirate has been a pleasant, low-risk hideaway for disgraced politicians and deposed foreign leaders.
Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto spent part of her eight-year exile here before she returned home and was assassinated in 2007. Thailand’s deposed prime minister was in Dubai just two weeks ago.
But the recent brazen killing of Chechen figure Sulim Yamadayev shattered the image of this self-declared apolitical oasis in the highly politicized region as immune from score-settling and vengeance connected to faraway conflicts.
Yamadayev was a former rebel in Chechnya’s long conflict with Russia who switched sides but then fell out with the territory’s pro-Moscow leader. He was shot dead on March 28 in broad daylight, in an underground parking lot of a residential complex along the city’s busy Gulf shoreline.
The killing — linked by Dubai to a close ally of Chechnya’s Moscow-backed president, who denies any tie — has put the Persian Gulf city-state on the edge and authorities may now think twice about letting it continue to be a sanctuary for people with a long history of political activity.
“It’s the first politically motivated killing here,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “This incident could prompt authorities to run more detailed background checks of those who want to live here or even come visit.”
Dubai’s hands-off attitude and its cosmopolitan makeup — expatriates from all over the world by far outnumber the native population — have long made it a favored refuge. The emirate’s deal with out-of-favor foreign politicians has always been straightforward: they are allowed to live here as long as they don’t bring their politics with them.
Pakistani politicians regularly meet in Dubai’s luxury hotels and top officials keep homes here, including Pakistan’s current president and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari.
“They come here because they feel it’s safe and they will not be hunted down or harassed by anybody,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior analyst with Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Dubai is considered neutral territory, like the Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Yamadayev had been living in Dubai with his wife and six children for four months before his death, but he was in the emirate on a Russian passport issued in the name of Sulaiman Madov, the authorities said.
The police chief admitted officials had not been aware a bitter opponent to the Kremlin-backed Chechen president was living here until he was shot dead.
“We don’t care about Chechnya here and their problems there,” Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim said Sunday. “I don’t know why they came here to fight and settle scores.”
In a way, Dubai was just an innocent bystander in an assassination that says more about Chechnya than the city-state. Several other Chechen renegades have been assassinated inside and outside Russia, and many observers link the killings to Kadyrov, who is accused of torture and killings by rights groups.
“It was not meant to wreak panic in Dubai,” Karasik, the analyst, said of Yamadayev’s murder. “It was just an opportune moment to get rid of a target, who was in Dubai simply to be away from Chechnya or Moscow.”
By world standards, Dubai is a safe city. Violent crime and criminally motivated killings do occur. Local media selectively report incidents, but the authorities do not reveal the city’s annual murder rate.
Indeed, Yamadayev’s slaying took place at the same luxury residential complex in the Dubai Marina, where another high-profile killing took place in July — that of Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tamim.
The 30-year-old singer’s throat was slashed in her apartment in a lurid crime story that, while not directly political, had a political impact.
Police found evidence linking the slaying to a real estate mogul in Egypt, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, who is close to the powerful son of President Hosni Mubarak. He is now on trial in Cairo for allegedly paying a former security guard $2 million to kill Tamim, who reportedly fled to Dubai to escape Moustafa after breaking off an affair.