the guardian:In the UAE, the future for those who continue to speak out looks bleak
In the past few days at least 10 people have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates, as a crackdown on activists is stepped up. On Sunday, Abu Dhabi’s attorney general announced that individuals linked with a group plotting to “commit state crimes and harm security” were to be arrested.
Those arrested include Mohamed al-Roken, a prominent lawyer. Another detainee, Mohamed al-Mansoori was roughly treated by 18 police officers, who forced a black bag over his head before bundling him into the back of a car.
In addition to the latest arrests, there are at least 15 other men being held for alleged links to al-Islah (the Reform & Social Guidance Association). The authorities have closed down this group, dismissing its board and seizing its assets. Over the past six months, a number of its members have been arrested, including seven men who were stripped of their citizenship after signing a petition calling for democratic reforms in the Emirates.
The petition, signed by groups with a range of ideological standpoints, called for mild reforms in the shape of a Federal National Council (FNC) possessing full jurisdiction over the lawmaking process and elected by universal suffrage. Currently, the FNC is a purely advisory body and elected by a handpicked group of citizens.
The targeting of al-Islah reflects the authorities’ fear surrounding an ever-increasing cultural chasm in the Emirates – between the largely conservative Emiratis and the expatriate population who form a majority. After a recent Madonna concert some Emiratis took to social media sites to express their displeasure at the authorities permitting such a raunchy show: “The UAE’s reputation has been sullied, the people’s feeling ignored and the call to respect our values taken lightly,” one of them, Rashed Alshamsi, wrote on Twitter. Indeed, a campaign demanding that expatriates respect the values of the UAE and cover up when in public has gained significant support among locals. The authorities are listening too; the FNC has proposed a dress code law to be enforced across the Emirates.
Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University and expert on Gulf issues, believes “the various state-approved relaxations in recent years – most of which were aimed at building up the non-oil economy – including attitudes on dress code and alcohol, have angered large chunks of the national population.” This in turn has led to the UAE authorities being very concerned “that the increasingly savvy and well-connected new generation of Emirati Islamists are now beginning to identify and shame the regime’s numerous inconsistencies”.
It would, however, be incorrect to view political dissent in the UAE as an ideological battle between the authorities and Islamists. The arrest last year of a liberal group known as the UAE 5 is indicative of a country where opposition of any kind is ruthlessly dealt with.
Although the UAE 5 eventually received a royal pardon under western pressure, they did not have their passports returned, and one individual – Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a UAE national – was rearrested in May. On Monday he was deported to Thailand and told he would never again be permitted to enter the Emirates.
In an atmosphere where dissent is treated ruthlessly – apparently with support from sections of the public – the future for those who continue to speak out looks bleak.
Fresh proposals to amend censorship legislation have been released, with plans to increase punishments for those criticising “symbols of the state”. These punishments are to include banning of individuals from using mobile phones and the internet for a period of time – though it is unlikely this law will be applied to government supporters who regularly send death threats to activists online.
Further to this, it has emerged that the UAE is seeking to contract 3,000 Colombian soldiers into its army, tempting them with significant pay rises on their current employment. According to a former Colombian colonel in charge of recruitment, the soldiers will be responsible for “control of civil uprisings“, among other perceived threats.
The cultural divide in the UAE may well be widening but authorities are likely to face greater problems in the future unless they move to address the legitimate desires of political activists. They should learn from regional experience as a result of the Arab spring and seek to engage with citizens who are calling for a role in public life.
The UAE should also do more to meet international standards on civil, political and human rights. For example, it is one of only 18 states not to have signed the international covenant on civil and political rights.
The United Kingdom also has a role to play here. The Committee on Arms Exports Controls has released evidence showing that export licences worth £254m were granted to the UAE in 2010. The Campaign Against Arms Trade has said it is “concerned about the potential consequences of the UK building yet another military commercial relationship with a regime which denies freedom and human rights to its citizens”.
Furthermore, the UK pavilion at the February 2011 IDEX fair in the UAE featured companies selling crowd-control equipment and armoured vehicles. Clearly, by recruiting Colombian mercenaries the UAE is preparing for a situation where these weapons could be potentially used against its own citizens.
It is perhaps symbolic that Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief during the Hosni Mubarak era, has taken refuge in the UAE. But rather than following his lead in dealing with political dissent, the Emirates should seek alternative methods of engaging with their citizens. If not, those in power face an uncertain future.