Slaying of American a rare spurt of violence in tranquil Emirates

Slaying of American a rare spurt of violence in tranquil Emirates
American schoolteacher Ibolya Ryan was stabbed to death in a restroom of a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Footprints Recruiting)

The contrast could hardly have been more stark: the blood-splashed scene of an American schoolteacher's killing and the opulent, sunlit world outside the shopping mall where she died.

The Dec. 1 stabbing death of Ibolya Ryan, a 47-year-old mother of three, sent shock waves through the expatriate community in this tiny Persian Gulf enclave, where sleek skyscrapers rise mirage-like from desert scrubland and sumptuous yachts bob in the marina.


At a time when much of the Mideast is boiling with violence, the United Arab Emirates has been a haven of calm, and authorities are vowing to keep it that way. The seven-state federation, knitted together in 1971, includes oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the financial hub of Dubai, known for its fanciful skyline, its sprawling, villa-studded artificial islands and mega-projects, including what aims to be the world's busiest airport.

The already high stakes in continued stability have been heightened by recent steps that have put the Emirates at odds with Islamist groups in the region, though tight policing and strictly enforced limits on political dissent have prevented any overt unrest. Even during the upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the UAE kept its air of determined calm.

This fall, the UAE's monarchical leadership joined the American-led military coalition confronting the Sunni militants of Islamic State, playing an active role in airstrikes targeting the extremist group's self-declared caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. The UAE has also firmly aligned itself with authoritarian-minded fellow Arab governments such as that in Egypt, which over 18 months has taken harsh measures to quell political Islam and armed Muslim militant groups.

The Ryan killing pointed up underlying political tension, although the suspect was not known to be a member of any militant organization.

Instead, the 38-year-old Emirati woman arrested in a police raid 48 hours later was believed to have acted alone, state media have reported. But authorities have found evidence that she had visited militant websites and searched out instructions for building a crude bomb similar to the one she is accused of planting outside the door of an Arab American doctor soon after the stabbing. The device was defused and no one was injured.

The killing of Ryan, who had taught in Colorado, was carried out in chillingly methodical fashion, the attacker lingering in a ground-floor restroom at the mall for nearly 90 minutes, concealing a kitchen knife and waiting for a Western-appearing woman to happen along, investigators say. Ryan, Romanian-born and of Hungarian descent, had blond hair and looked distinctly foreign.

Shopping at the mall with her 11-year-old twin boys, she had entered the women's restroom alone while her sons went to a restroom just down a corridor. Afterward, their father said, they waited a short distance away for their mother, whom they would never see alive again.

"The boys did not realize what happened, and did not hear their mother cry for help," her ex-husband, Paul Ryan, who lives in Austria, told NBC News. "This monster of a person was lying in wait for someone like her.... Unfortunately" — his voice broke — "it was my kids' mother."

Surveillance video showed the suspect striding purposefully into the mall's elevator lobby clad in an enveloping black robe, a face-concealing veil and black gloves, and afterward walking rapidly from the restroom, not running in panic.

The police, who appeared torn between playing up public safety and simultaneously showcasing a lurid crime, released a video that included the stabbing's gory aftermath, including a shot of the large, bloody kitchen knife and the victim's blood on the tiled restroom floor. A subsequent video showed police in bulletproof vests storming the home of the suspect in a nighttime raid, leading her out in what appeared to be nightclothes.

Within the overwhelmingly Sunni Emirati population, which is outnumbered 4 to 1 by foreign residents, argument has raged on social media over whether the face-concealing niqab, whose use is common in many parts of the Persian Gulf region, lends a dangerous anonymity to potential attackers. Some commentators, however, see the debate over whether women should go veiled or unveiled as a larger symptom of the struggle with rapid social change brought on by outside influences.

"Our society is no longer homogenous and, with people now being highly educated and exposed to international cultural norms, will never again be closed," Ayesha Almazroui wrote in the National newspaper.

"Lack of acceptance of others is thought to have prompted the murder of an innocent person," she said. "That same attitude also creates polarization within UAE society, and we need to address the issue before it's too late."

At the Boutik Mall, where Ryan was killed, sheets of black plastic walled off the restroom across from a supermarket and next to a frozen yogurt concession. Flowers and candles were laid at the foot of the makeshift barricade.

Western residents, though expressing horror over the attack, said they felt no sense of general threat. The UAE, with its desert dunes, camel markets and souks overflowing with gold and spices, has long seemed to offer Arabian exoticism and security in nearly equal measures, and few would wish to abandon it.

"We wouldn't leave for anything," said a Danish mother of two toddlers, seated with her engineer husband at a cafe in the mall. "What happened is very sad, but the weather, the amenities — we just enjoy everything here."

There is little doubt that the good life here can be very good indeed — for some, at least. Although large numbers of South Asians are in the Emirates as laborers, often toiling under harsh conditions, many Westerners are able to live at a standard that would be unattainable at home.

Even those in relatively modestly paid occupations such as paralegal or kindergarten teacher, as Ryan was, generally can afford large, pleasant apartments with lush landscaping and swimming pools. For those working in highflying fields like finance, the lifestyle runs to high-end pleasures like viewing Grand Prix auto races, frequenting designer boutiques and enjoying long liquid brunches. Landmark franchises of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are being built in Abu Dhabi.

For the well-off, few comforts are spared. Summer temperatures are scorching, but expatriates and locals alike are happy to while away their leisure time in glitzy, perfectly chilled shopping malls and enormous aquatic parks. Tourists may giggle at some of the UAE's over-the-top, superlative-seeking attractions, like the fountains in downtown Dubai that shoot jets hundreds of feet into the air, or a hotel aquarium that for a time housed a whale shark, but they pack in the crowds.

"I mean, look at this," said Rachel Devine, a 44-year-old Australian blogger who was suited up for Ski Dubai, the region's first indoor ski resort. Its five ski runs and chairlift have proved a sensation since opening nine years ago in the Mall of the Emirates, a complex the size of a small city.

Like many expatriates in the Emirates, Ryan was caught up in a spirit of adventure, friends said, but also highly safety-conscious, especially because her sons were with her. (Her 13-year-old daughter lived in Vienna with her father after what he described as an amicable divorce; father and daughter flew to the UAE after the killing to be reunited with the twins.)

Some expats said they were waiting to see whether the killing remains an isolated incident.


"If it happens this once, I still feel safe," said Gary Christopher, a 60-year-old from Phoenix who works as a technical trainer. "If it starts to happen once a week, well, that would be another matter."


Twitter: @laurakingLAT