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Intelligence Experts Skeptical of Dubai Spy-Expulsion Threat

While some European intelligence agencies are seriously concerned about the Dubai police chief's demand that all foreign spies leave his region in a week, U.S. and some allied intelligence experts are skeptical that it will come to pass.

As we reported on Thursday, Dubai Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, told media in the United Arab Emirates that foreign agents currently operating in "the Gulf" should leave the area within a week or face unspecified consequences. A Gulf newspaper, Al-Khaleej, quoted Tamim saying that foreign spies had better depart Dubai "or they will face extreme measures," according to a report from the Alarabiya.net Web site.

One European diplomat, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive foreign-policy issue, said that the fear among foreign intelligence services is that Dubai authorities will enforce their expulsion threat by making public pictures and identifying information on suspected foreign agents.

After Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered in January in a Dubai luxury hotel, local investigators, led by Tamim, caused an international uproar when they released pictures and passport details of 26 foreigners who the authorities alleged were members of a clandestine hit team that had assassinated Mabhouh. Although no hit-squad members have been positively identified, their operation is widely believed to be the handiwork of Israel's foreign-intelligence agency, Mossad. (Israeli officials have declined to comment on this allegation.)

There is a particular fear that Dubai authorities will blow the covers of foreign operatives operating "undeclared" or "illegal" in Dubai and other emirate states, meaning that they have been posing as something other than official representatives of a foreign government.  Publicizing the identities of undeclared intelligence officers or informants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to work again in undercover assignments overseas.

But other intelligence experts say that the expulsion threat is just a bluff. "It's total BS," says former CIA officer Robert Baer, who spent much of his career in the region before becoming an author (and inspiration for the George Clooney film Syriana). "It's bluster ... They're not going to be expelling the FBI or CIA." Baer says that Dubai's very public exposure of alleged Mabhouh hit-squad members is part of an "active campaign" by the emirate to clean up its reputation in light of its recent financial difficulties; expelling FBI and CIA operatives would hardly serve that goal, he says.

Another former senior CIA official, Bruce Riedel, who has advised the Obama White House on policy in the region, said that it would be "pretty risky" for Dubai authorities to carry out their spy expulsion threat since most of the foreign spies who work out of Dubai are Iranian. "There's a huge Iranian presence in Dubai, including representatives of the Revolutionary Guards," Riedel said, adding that these Iranians are "a dangerous group to antagonize." Riedel agreed with Baer that the Dubai police chief's expulsion threat is probably a giant bluff.

The Emirates Embassy in Washington did not respond to a telephone message and e-mail requesting comment.

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