Analysis: Gulf state growth draws al-Qaida

By JASON MOTLAGH, UPI Correspondent   |   Sept. 21, 2006 at 3:28 PM
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri this month called for renewed attacks on Western interests in the Middle East, singling out the Gulf Arab states as targets for their cooperation in the Bush administration's war on terror. Saudi Arabia has already been stung, and as booming sheikhdoms like Dubai promote trade and tourism to attract Western dollars and visitors alike, some experts fear trouble may follow.

"Their must be a focus on (the West's) economic interests and in particular on stopping the theft of Muslims' plundered petroleum," Zawahiri said in a Sept. 11 video aired on al-Jazeera television. He warned that attacks around the Gulf, the world's top oil-exporting region, were part of an expanded operational focus.

"You have to bolster your defenses in two areas... the first is the Gulf, from which you will be evicted," he asserted.

This latest pronouncement echoed those previously made by al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, who has said Gulf leaders must pay for maintaining strong ties with Washington. Militants failed in a February attempt to blow up Saudi Arabia's massive Abqaiq facility but pledged to carry out future attacks elsewhere in the region.

The United Arab Emirates, a union of seven desert sheikhdoms, has an outsized presence in the global oil industry and, comparable to Saudi Arabia, plays host to U.S. air and naval forces and has provided assistance in capturing and delivering key terror suspects wanted by the United States.

The Abu Dhabi emirate alone accounts for 8 percent of the world's oil reserves, or 92 billion barrels. But its wealth is surpassed by neighboring Dubai, whose accumulated growth over the last decade is one of the highest and fastest in the world.

About the size of Rhode Island with a mere 45 miles of coastline, cosmopolitan Dubai has leveraged limited petrodollars to raise the bar against the West at its own game. Booming real estate, tourism and banking sectors continue to lure thousands of Westerners to the desert, though most expatriates -- almost 80 percent of the population -- are from the Indian Sub-Continent and the Arab world.

Dubai's ripe business climate and relatively lax entry restrictions, the very qualities that have driven its remarkable growth, have also led to brushes with terror. Touted as the "Middle East's financial capital," a recent U.S. News & World Report article declared, "From Egypt to Afghanistan, when terrorists and gangsters need a place to meet, to relax, maybe to invest, they head to Dubai."

According to U.S. authorities, the UAE, Dubai in particular, was a major travel hub and money transfer center for al-Qaida prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It is believed that 11 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudi citizens transited through Dubai en route to the United States. And investigators have said much of the $500,000 used to fund the attacks was wired to hijackers from Dubai, while al-Qaida money in Dubai banks have also been linked to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Still more funds and gold that passed through Dubai were known to have been transferred into Pakistan by the Taliban.

Evan Kohlman, a leading terrorism analyst based in Washington, D.C., maintains the UAE banking system and logistical value are still important to al-Qaida terror activity, adding that the country's security apparatus has shown skill and initiative in combating terror.

In 2004, a Pakistani militant suspected of training thousands of al-Qaida fighters was arrested in the Emirates and repatriated, according to officials in Pakistan. UAE authorities also arrested the alleged Saudi-born mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen which killed 17 U.S. sailors, announcing the man had been planning to strike "vital economic targets" in the Emirates to inflict "the highest possible casualties among nationals and foreigners."

That same year, an extremist group warned Dubai and other UAE sheikhdoms that it would attack the tourism industry if authorities did not stop seizing alleged militants wanted by Western allies. The group called itself "Qaeda al-Jihad" and claimed to have infiltrated UAE "security, censorship and monetary agencies."

"You are an easier target than (the Americans); your homeland is exposed to us," a letter later declassified by the U.S. military said. "There are many vital interests that will hurt you if we decided to harm them, especially since you rely on shameless tourism in your economic revenue."

With the goal of enticing some 15 million visitors a year beginning in 2010 with a bevy of superlative projects that include the world's tallest building, largest shopping mall, largest internet-technology center and the first economic "free zone dedicated to the outsourcing industry," observers say security is a critical issue that Dubai authorities nevertheless prefer to keep at a low-profile.

"Security is much more pronounced" in places like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that "have been hit by terrorism, foreign and local, and adopted stringent measures to tighten their security apparatus," Massoud A. Derhally, an Emirates analyst, told United Press International. "Dubai has been safe since its inception and... authorities are very aware of what the possibilities could be."

Derhally refused to speculate on what the repercussions might be to the business and tourism industries in the event of a terror attack -- which he did not foresee -- but noted: "At the end of the day the markets react according to psychology. Whether there is a reason for them to or not, that is beside the story."

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