The diplomatic embarrassment following the assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud Al Mabhough, a senior Hamas official, was obvious. The embarrassment, however, is not the biggest thing Israel needs to worry about. The Al Mabhouh affair means that 27 of Al Mossad's best international black ops operatives have received their burn notice publically on international television. burning a complete squad of assassins, obviously for the first time in the Mossad history, could easily mount up to be a vocational assassination.
From a media perspective this has been a relatively slow burn, from the initial disclosure of the murder at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at the end of January a week after the event - to the first of two dramatic police press conferences on 15th February.
Unlike Hamass accusations against Mossad prior to Dubai Polices first press conference, the press release that the Dubai Police issued indicated the involvement of "hired criminal bodies". It did not accuse any particular body despite hints from the head of Dubai Police that "international bodies issued crime orders. This approach led the media quickly to conclude from the evidence given that the job was so well organized that the intelligence body involved had to be Mossad. That media filed this accusation was a success for Dubai Polices strategy. Had the Police accused the Mossad from the beginning they would have been obliged to provide clear evidence. Instead, they left the media to this take this initiative and to search for logical reasons to support the accusations.
That the media did this job efficiently motivated the head of police to bypass the agreed media strategy and, instead, to accuse Mossad and to take an unusual stepat a time when evidence was not decisive of announcing the Dubai Police intention to issue an arrest warrant against the Israeli Prime Minister if Mossads involvement were proven. Perhaps this eagerness reflects some of the lessons the Dubai force learned a year ago in dealing with another politically-motivated murder involving the former Chechen warlord, Sulim Yamadayev. On that occasion, for several days the police appeared uncertain whether to publicize the evidence of a political hit or to treat it quietly as a more routine murder inquiry.
In the case of Mr. al-Mabhouh, the high profile Dubai Police press conference led by Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim on 15 February left few in any doubt on three counts. First, most observers were impressed by the remarkable police work that had swiftly pieced together the evidence of a carefully planned, coordinated and executed crime. Second, the use of so many false passports and the size of the team narrowed the suspect list to the Mossad even if Israel would never acknowledge the fact. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it trumpted a clear message: Do not trifle with Dubai.
It is conclusively clear how the media changed toward the Al Mabhouh case which no doubt shows how the Dubai police dealt with the media in a positive way and used it as an ally, not an enemy. As a result of the Dubai Polices robust response to this latest assassination, the worlds media swiftly shifted ground from seeing possible complicity in Dubai to finding that all those named by the police had been the victims of identity theft, and that these passports were not forged but altered originals used in an illegal manner. Whilst all the actual named persons were from Israel and lived in Israel and many are dual nationals of many different countries and most of them said, through a relative, that they had not left Israel. None of their pictures were published to verify that they are not those who participated in the crime. This threw suspicion back on to Israel and the Mossad. What Israeli citizens initially celebrated as a Mossad success began to back-fire, with possible consequences for Mossad and government leadership. Even the Israeli media largely accepted that its secret service was the most likely culprit.
Many correspondents covering the story began to form this interpretation of the strategy of the Dubai leadership: Dubai does not wish to sever all interaction with Israel; at the same time the Police were hinting that Mossad was the culprit, the UAE allowed the Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer to compete in the WTA tournament and the Israeli representative to the UN environmental agency IRENA headquartered in Abu Dhabi attended a council meeting. Thus, the strategy redirected media and international political attention, bringing other countries into the spotlight to express anger and outrage at the misuse of sovereign national identity documents. In so doing, the Dubai Police in effect indicted Mossad of this crime without actually having to say so. Most media and analysts appeared to accept this as a smart move that not only had the desired outcome of embarrassing Israel, but it made other bodies adopt an accusation that the Police otherwise would have been forced to defend by a show evidence.
While the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh dominated the international news for a number of days following, in many ways the police strategy moved the story on from Dubai. Most interest shifted to the growing diplomatic pressure on Israel over the abuse of sovereign documents. Israeli ambassadors faced uncomfortable meetings with foreign ministries in the UK, Ireland, France and Germany. Police teams of the harmed countries flew to Israel with heavy media attention.
The event, and especially the very public international controversy that subsequently broke out, also called into question the issue of international intelligence collaboration and information sharing. Some noted that Mossad shares close links with the US CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Some critics therefore speculated about possible collusion in the planning of what was widely judged to have been a serious crime.
To the media Dubai, the emirate, appeared to be trying to navigate a narrow path between competing pressures. The decision to release so much detailed evidence concerning this crime paid off for Dubai. First, a number of commentators have evidently been impressed by the careful police work that assembled the evidence. Second, it may have initially restored some confidence in the UAEs justice system, diminished in the wake of the case involving Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan. Third, it showed that the Dubai authorities will not tolerate being seen as the new Beirut or Cyprusfull of international intrigue and shadowy operations. Finally, so far at least, Dubais reputation as a tourist and business hub seems untainted. Indeed, for some the episode adds a new aura of excitement to the emirates image.
Whilst interest in the case has begun to fade, commentators will await what might be the the result of these incidences. All the media attention generated by the criminal investigations will boil down to the looking for an outcomewhether next will be further diplomatic debate or domestic discussion or a submission of it to justice either locally or internationally. The police have done their part and its time now to elevate the case to the next tier. (Mohammed Baharoon contributed to this analysis.)