April 22, 2010 | Forbes

Terrorist With A Five-Star Tab

Were it not for the recent, high-profile murder of a Hamas terrorist leader on the premises, the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel would be notable mainly for its glitz and comfort. As it is, in the many stories written about the death of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, found suffocated to death in his Al Bustan guest room in January, the hotel's five-star rating has been mentioned mostly in passing.

When I dropped by the Al Bustan Rotana during a recent trip to Dubai, it struck me that the luxuriousness of the hotel has not been fully conveyed. That matters. The opulence with which al-Mabhouh surrounded himself on his fatal trip underscores some big unanswered questions, not about the alleged killers (whose trail has received plenty of official attention) but about al-Mabhouh (whose doings in Dubai have yet to be explained).

Al-Mabhouh was, after all, a senior member of Hamas–a Palestinian organization that expects of its underlings an austere dedication to Islamic law and tutors them to sacrifice everything for such Hamas charter causes as the destruction of Israel. Al-Mabhouh, like a number of other Hamas leaders, was based in Damascus. But he was a big cog in a Hamas system that in 2007 seized complete control of Gaza and with the backing of Iran has made it a priority to saturate Gaza with weapons, while the population lives in poverty–dependent on massive handouts from places such as the U.S. and European Union, much of that funneled via outfits such as the United Nations.

When al-Mabhouh arrived in Dubai from Damascus on Jan. 19, it seems that austerity was not on his agenda. He checked into a plush hotel, geared to cosmopolitan pleasures. Though rates fluctuate with the season, rooms at the Al Bustan go for hundreds of dollars per night, sums that for the average resident of Gaza would represent quite a windfall.

Guests of the Al Bustan enter a huge marble-floored lobby, with a lofty atrium, tiled fountains and indoor palm trees. The arcade sells designer clothes. Restaurants on the premises offer everything from pan-fried Hokkaido scallops to “the most tender cut of corn-fed beef.”

In the center of the lobby is the Gazebo Lounge, where waitresses in long skirts slit up to the thigh serve pricey whiskey, or sweets such as white chocolate crème brulee and lemon- coconut cheesecake. Bouquets of white lilies and pink roses adorn the polished tables. Tea comes in a shapely glass pot, set atop a glass-cradled candle warmer, accompanied by a plate of delicate pastries, including a melt-in-your-mouth crescent-shaped sugar cookie.

For a bit more privacy, there's a corner nook with deep sofas. The better to cosset the guests, a wooden treasure chest stands propped open to offer neat rows of plump, fresh dates. Next to it is a leather-encased box of tissues for guests to wipe their sticky fingers and a sleek black plate for the pits.

The Al Bustan is part of a chain of Rotana luxury hotels operating not only in the UAE but also in places such as Beirut, Damascus and Sudan–where the names of VIP visitors attest to the comforts of the facilities. In Khartoum the Al Salam Rotana, opened in 2007, has hosted former president Jimmy Carter, as well as U.N. gatherings. In Dubai the Al Bustan Rotana boasts a plaque near its palatial entrance noting that it was inaugurated in 1997 “under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,” then the Crown Prince and today the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the U.A.E.

With the investigation continuing into al-Mabhouh's murder, members of the hotel staff are understandably reluctant to discuss the matter. The hotel manager on duty politely declined to answer any questions, saying only that the murder “could have happened anywhere. It's unfortunate that it happened here.”

Dubai authorities find it worse than unfortunate that al-Mabhouh was murdered on their turf. They have been expressing outrage for months, calling for the capture of al-Mabhouh's killers, enlisting Interpol and releasing surveillance-camera video footage, as well as details of the passports and credit cards used by the suspects. They continue pointing fingers at Israel, which in keeping with its policy, has made no official comment on the allegations. Just this week UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan was quoted by the UAE press blaming Israel and saying that the UAE continues to hunt the killers, “to demonstrate that the UAE is a state of law and respect.” The UAE, he was quoted as saying, “has got full support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),the Arab League and the Arab Summit held in Sirte, Libya, in following these criminals.”

But the questions surrounding al-Mabhouh go way beyond who killed him, and my repeated queries to the Dubai Police, submitted both in person and by e-mail, have received no response. Al-Mabhouh was a founding member of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas, which have carried out scores of murderous attacks on Israel. According to Hamas he was behind the kidnapping and killing in 1989 of two Israeli soldiers. Israeli security officials have told The Wall Street Journal that he was “a key link” in smuggling weapons to Hamas in Gaza from Iran.

How was al-Mabhouh paying for his five-star lodgings in Dubai? That may be the least of the questions pertaining to his activities. But let's start somewhere. Could the UAE authorities please enlighten us on such basic matters as how al-Mabhouh arranged to pay for his luxury stay on their turf, what he did there and whether he had visited before? And with all the resources of the Arab League now on the case, would it be too much to ask for full details–whether from Damascus, Dubai or anyplace else that played host to al-Mabhouh–of who was picking up the tab for his travel, and why?

Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

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Iran