The UAE: holding back the tide

As a deeply-tribal and largely homogeneous society that has also engaged heavily both in state-branding and institutional partnerships in recent years, the security crackdown in the UAE holds particular resonance, calling into question the judgement of international institutions that bought into the benevolent ‘images’ so carefully promoted by ruling elites.

The arrest and detention of 54 political and human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates has thrown the spotlight on one of the most autocratic and least institutionalised Persian Gulf monarchies. Championed by their western security partners as an oasis of relative stability in a sea of regional upheaval, Gulf rulers have in reality been profoundly shaken by rising participatory demands and calls for political reform. Initial policy responses focused on intensifying the ‘politics of patronage’ by announcing massive welfare packages worth billions of dollars, and creating tens of thousands of new jobs for under- and unemployed nationals. However, these notably failed to quell dissenting voices or address the underlying socio-economic and political drivers of discontent. In all six Gulf States, rulers have instead turned to repression to compensate for the failure of redistributive measures to preserve their power and privileges.

This depressing turn of events has momentous consequences for the sustainability of the social contract binding states and societies in the Gulf together. It also calls into question the judgement of international institutions that bought into the benevolent ‘images’ so carefully promoted by ruling elites. As a deeply-tribal and largely homogeneous society that has also engaged heavily both in state-branding and institutional partnerships in recent years, the security crackdown in the UAE holds particular resonance. Moreover, it raises fundamental questions about the future of authoritarian ruling families whose instinctive response to the appearance of domestic opposition is to suppress it and wish it out of existence. Failure to acknowledge the zeitgeist sweeping so powerfully across the region means rulers run the risk of losing control and ensuring that change, when it comes, will be sudden and violent, rather than incremental and consensual. 

Waves of arrests

With the Arab Spring well into its second year, the authorities in the UAE have consistently mismanaged the limited pressures for reform. Far from projecting a vision of strength, these missteps have exposed the regime’s absolute mistrust of any political or democratic development. A collection of seven emirates dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the country has one of the least participatory political systems in the world. Elections to the (advisory) Federal National Council were held for the first time in 2006, but were excessively, even ludicrously, controlled. Only 6889 voters - less than 1 percent of the national population who were hand-picked by their rulers - were permitted to vote for half of the seats, with the remainder filled by appointed members. Lacking legislative power, the council resembled a talking shop until the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt empowered people across the Arab world with notions of political freedoms and public accountability. 

By comparison with the momentous developments in North Africa and neighbouring Bahrain, early calls for political reform in the UAE were extremely cautious. On 3 March 2011, a petition signed by 132 Emiratis requested that all UAE citizens be given the right to vote and that the Federal National Council be vested with legislative powers. Yet even these most moderate of demands were too much for the leadership in Abu Dhabi, who responded by arresting five high-profile advocates for reform, for “breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the President,” the (unelected) hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.[1] 

The five detainees included a champion of human rights and free discussion of UAE issues, Ahmed Mansour, and leading Emirati economist, Nasser bin Ghaith. Mansour had founded the www.uaehewar.net website in August 2009 as a platform for the discussion of politics, development, and society in the Emirates. This online forum featured hundreds of postings on sensitive issues (such as the acquittal in January 2010 of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the half-brother of the President who had been captured on video allegedly torturing a South Asian man), before it was blocked the same month. Also in 2010, he stated that, “It’s because I care for my country that I feel these issues need to be discussed.” Bin Ghaith, for his part, had eloquently criticised the economic handouts as a tool for pre-empting calls for reform, just a week before his arrest: “They have announced 'benefits and handouts' assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings… But this only delays change and reform, which will still come sooner or later.”[2]

After eight months of detention, the ‘UAE5’, as they became known, were convicted of insulting the rulers of the UAE following a trial riddled with inconsistencies and denounced by human rights organisations. On the following day, they were pardoned by the President, doubtless wishing to appear the benevolent father-figure forgiving his wayward citizenry, but their criminal records remained, making it impossible for them to obtain the ‘certificate of good conduct’ necessary to work and even marry in the UAE.[3] Almost immediately, the state security cracked down again, stripping six members of the Islamist Jamiat Al-Islah wa Tawjih (Association for Reform and Guidance) movement of their citizenship. Islah was one of the oldest and most organised groups in the UAE, dating its history back to 1974, and with a strong foothold in the country’s educational and charitable sectors. Although two of their number reached Cabinet positions in the 1970s, their growing strength alarmed the government, and they were steadily marginalised during the 1980s and 1990s. 

Worryingly for the federal government in Abu Dhabi, Islah remains particularly strong in the northerly emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. Only an hour away from Dubai by road, visitors to Ras al-Khaimah (and the other northern emirates of Sharjah, Ajman and Umm al-Qaiwain, as well as Fujairah on the east coast) are struck by the differential levels of development and the visible manifestations of poverty and deprivation. It is a world-away from the glitz and the glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and home to many Emirati nationals who complain of inequalities in living standards and poorer levels of public services, including high rates of unemployment. In these conditions, many hold sympathies for Islah, which claims to have some 20,000 members. Government paranoia in Abu Dhabi centres on Islah’s potential to rock the boat in the wake of the Arab Spring, as it draws upon similar narratives of political oppression, economic distress, and perceived lack of opportunities that proved so potent a tool of mass mobilisation in Egypt and Tunisia.  

This obsession with national security formed the prelude to an intensifying campaign of repression intended to stamp out the Islah threat once and for all. 50 people have been detained since March 2012 with 36 arrested since 16 July alone. The whereabouts of 38 of the men remain unknown, and Amnesty International has expressed concerns that the detainees are at risk of being tortured.[4] One of the original ‘UAE5,’ Ahmed Adul Khaleq, was re-arrested in May and deported to Thailand on 16 July, on a Comoros Island passport, after being told by prison officials that he would be imprisoned indefinitely without formal charge if he refused to leave. Abdul Khaleq is a member of the stateless (‘bedoon’) community and founder of the Emaraty Bedoon website that sought to draw attention to their plight. His family has been harassed by the UAE authorities and his six sisters have been threatened with arrest if he resumes his activism while in Thailand.[5]

Of additional concern is that some of the arrests were reportedly carried out by un-uniformed men said to be non-Emiratis. These could be members of an 842-strong group of Columbian soldiers and former soldiers said to be operating within the UAE[6]; according to a May 2011 New York Times exposé, they were hired by former Blackwater head Eric Prince at the behest of the Abu Dhabi authorities to defend the UAE from terrorist attacks and internal revolt. Explosively, the Times article claimed that Prince had given orders to recruit only non-Muslims, from South Africa and the French Foreign Legion in addition to Columbia, as Muslim soldiers “could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.”[7] 

Already, the number of arrests is unprecedented in scale and scope. Although mostly from the poorer Northern Emirates, they also include public sector officials from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and representatives of some of the UAE’s largest and most influential tribes, such as the al-Suweidi, the al-Nuaimi, and the al-Shamsi. A cousin of the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed Al-Qassimi, was detained in April in a sign that royal rank no longer offers protection. One of the most high-profile arrests was that of Dr Mohamed al-Roken, whose whereabouts remain unknown following his detention on 17 July. Al-Roken was one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in the UAE, and had served as co-defense counsel for two of the ‘UAE5’ in 2011. Disturbingly, when another lawyer (Salim al-Shehhi) went to the State Security Prosecution office to represent al-Roken, he himself was detained.[8] 

With the arrests continuing almost on a daily basis, it is hard to predict when they will end. Yet it is clear that they fall into a larger pattern of the suppression of the limited spaces that hitherto had existed for discussion, debate, and association in the UAE. As part of the April 2011 crackdown, the elected boards of the Teacher’s Association and the Jurists’ Association (the latter headed by al-Roken) were dismissed and replaced by government appointees. A draft new judicial law discussed in a closed session of the Federal National Council on 26 July 2012 would, if passed, change the UAE constitution by placing the Federal Judicial Council under the President, rather than the Minister of Justice, thereby doing away with any separation of powers between the executive and judiciary branches of government. And the outspoken Chief of Police in Dubai, Dahi Khalfan, has shown scant regard for due process or the presumption of innocence with a series of inflammatory outbursts warning of international plots to overthrow Gulf rulers.[9] 

Domestic implications 

The escalating crackdown has profound implications for notions of national identity and ‘public space’ in the UAE. The demonisation of the Muslim Brotherhood (with which Islah is affiliated) by the media and ruling elites has contributed to the construction of a ‘them and us’ mentality which never before existed. People now speak of ‘the opposition’ and ‘opposition figureheads,’ terms virtually unheard of in the close-knit and largely homogeneous Emirati society that hitherto had lacked internal fissures such as the Sunni-Shiite schism in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Crucially, they come at a moment of uncertainty within the UAE, as the nation and its rulers struggle to define what it means to be an Emirati in the contemporary world.

For decades, national identity in the UAE was constructed around the charismatic authority and benevolent leadership of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. He united the seven federations upon independence in 1971 and was its first (and only) President until he died aged 86, in November 2004. People from all walks of life identified closely with him and cemented a residual loyalty that deepened with the addition of feelings of nostalgia following his death.[10] However, eight years on, this unifying glue has weakened, but his sons have not been able to find a suitable replacement for Zayed as the emblematic national symbol of identity. Hence, the construction of ‘the other’ - the threat from Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood - is being used to try and rally Emiratis in support of their rulers, and to overcome their lack of vision for the country’s future. 

The demonisation of the Islah movement has intriguing socio-cultural consequences. In Arabic, ‘Islah’ as a word simply means ‘reform’ and is used as such in everyday conversations. However, in its public association with regime-declared ‘enemies of the state’, its original meaning has been stripped away, and the word has instead become politicised and loaded with pejorative meaning. It is difficult to envisage people in the UAE being able safely to talk of reform, at least in the near future, when the word itself carries such double-meaning. It also connects future calls for reform with a specifically Islamist agenda, making it harder for reformists of other hues to make themselves heard. 

Creating divisions within society where none really existed before may work in the short-term, but it risks generating movements that develop a momentum of their own and move beyond the capacity of governments to control. Saudi Arabia’s tacit encouragement of jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia in the 1980s and 1990s is one example; another, more recent instance, is the Bahraini government’s ruthless deployment of sectarian rhetoric to fragment the swelling opposition movement that briefly threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa ruling family last year. In this they succeeded, but at the price of shattering social cohesion and polarising people as never before. In the UAE, the danger is that alienation from the Abu Dhabi-run government (and security apparatus) reinforces and deepens the simmering discontent held by many nationals in the Northern Emirates at their difficult socio-economic situation. 

These feelings of alienation and loss of an overarching identity are compounded by the reconfiguration of power in the post-Zayed generation. Sheikh Zayed was succeeded as President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi by his designated heir (and eldest son) Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, in a relatively smooth succession. However, Khalifa is reputedly in poor health and rarely seen in public, and has delegated much of the day-to-day governance of the federation to his younger half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed. He is a hard-liner, particularly with regard to Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. His eldest son, Khalid bin Mohammed, is believed to be responsible for the ‘Islamist file’ at the State Security Directorate, which itself is headed by another trusted member of his inner circle.[11]

Power in the UAE federal government thus appears to be coalescing around Mohammed bin Zayed and his full brother, the national security advisor (and head of the State Security Directorate until 2011) Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed. This suggests that the portrayal of Islamists and Islamism as threats to national security will continue to take priority over any political engagement or willingness to tolerate dissenting views. Moreover, by cracking down so hard and so widely, the authorities in the UAE are creating a sophisticated police state wherein people and organisations fear arrest or sanction if they cross vaguely-defined (and constantly-shifting) ‘red lines.’ This calls to mind Foucault’s notion of the ‘self-policing subject’ under the gaze of suffocating surveillance and constant peer pressure to denounce transgressors and prove one’s own loyalty. 

This securitisation of the response to domestic advocates of political and human rights is troubling. The leadership of the UAE may think that it can go its own way and violate international norms as it pleases. But, in reality, their draconian approach does nothing to tackle the root causes of socio-economic discontent in the Northern Emirates, or the concern held by many Emiratis that they are largely excluded from the dizzying emergence of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as ‘global cities.’ In 2006, for example, Emirati nationals constituted just 2 per cent of Dubai’s total workforce.[12] By viewing any peaceful critic as a threat to state security, the ruling clique in Abu Dhabi has shown itself to be out of touch with reality, and completely unable to accept or incorporate pluralist views within the existing political system. 

Furthermore, the oppressive approach is actually self-defeating. Suppose for a moment that the charges against the detainees are indeed based on fact and that some or all are found guilty of plotting to commit anti-state crimes. The problem for the ruling elite is that their overwhelming and disproportionate security response makes any such verdict much less credible in the eyes of local citizens and international observers alike. Far from believing the gravity of the aborted plot, the authorities will be vulnerable to charges of conducting a show trial, and the detainees will become political prisoners and martyrs to an energised opposition. This would mark a substantial regression for the UAE and probably only widen the existing boundaries of discontent and opposition.

International repercussions

Developments in the UAE matter. Over the past few years, the country’s rulers have branded it as a regional hub for businesses and institutions looking to set up in the Middle East. A large part of the appeal rested on the emphasis on tolerance of other cultures, openness to diversity, and special free zones operating beyond national laws. It was very successful, as prestigious and high-profile international organisations and multinational corporations located their regional offices in the UAE, among the most recent being the launch in May of Sky News Arabia, based in Abu Dhabi and bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation headed by the owner of Manchester City football club and Minister of Presidential Affairs, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.[13] Others included prestigious museums (the Louvre and Guggenheim) planning to open regional offshoots in the UAE, leading universities setting up branch campuses in Abu Dhabi (the Sorbonne and New York University), and a phalanx of British universities naming academic buildings, lecture theatres, and professorial chairs after individual Emirati rulers in return for substantial amounts of funding.

With each new arrest, it will become progressively harder for these predominantly cultural and educational institutions to continue to justify their engagement with a country currently so inimical to the freedoms and values they claim to represent. After having uneasily turned a blind eye to the case of the ‘UAE5’ in 2011, any continuing silence over the detention without charge of more than 50 people will be deafening.  However, from a cynically realist perspective, the cold truth is that the UAE’s strategic and commercial significance means that western institutions and governments are unlikely to make much of a fuss. As with Bahrain, the threshold of tolerance for government-sanctioned violence will be far higher than in Syria or Libya. Acknowledgement of this appears to have spurred on officials in Abu Dhabi to effectively dare their western partners to acquiesce in the crackdown as a necessary measure, or follow their principles and drop their lucrative agreements. In a time of economic austerity and savage cost-cutting, it would be a brave organisation that eschewed a major donor or investor in such a way.

This aside, the trajectory of events in the UAE is disturbing. It suggests that its rulers are simply unable or unwilling to comprehend or tolerate any form of political plurality. Yet all political systems – monarchical or republican, democratic or authoritarian – must adapt to and change with the times. Failure to do so on one’s own terms, ‘from above,’ leaves open the possibility that pressures will eventually build-up from below. Moreover, their attempt to maintain the status quo at all costs marks the UAE out as one of the most authoritarian political systems in the region with the fewest constraints on the use or abuse of executive privilege. As a core strategic ally of the west, and home to large expatriate communities, any prolonged unrest in the UAE will inevitably assume significance beyond its borders. 

However, if a state fails to trust its citizens and conflates the holding of diverse viewpoints with treachery, the greater danger is to Emirati citizens themselves. This leaves the government looking paranoid, weak, insecure, and completely at odds with the image they have so carefully constructed in recent years. The UAE is at a crossroads; it can choose between acceptance of pluralism or continuing repression, and its prospects for consensual domestic development rest on the outcome.


[1] ‘UAE Cracks Down on Dissent Amid Calls for Reform,’ Gulf States Newsletter, Volume 35 Issue 899, 29 April 2011, p.1

[2] http://www.currentintelligence.net/gulfstream/2011/4/11/democracy-crackdown-in-the-uae.html

[3] http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2012/01/uae5-mansoor-still-face-restrictions-after-pardon-emirates/

[4] https://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/MDE25/007/2012/en

[5]http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/304819/uae-activist-in-limbo-as-uncertain-fate-awaits

[6] http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/24881-united-arab-emirates-seeks-to-recruit-3000-colombian-soldiers-report.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/world/middleeast/15prince.html?pagewanted=all

[8] http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/08/01/uae-us-uk-should-criticize-dissident-arrests

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/26/us-emirates-police-brotherhood-idUSBRE86P10420120726

[10] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3975849.stm

[11] ‘Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Linked to Crackdown,’ Gulf States Newsletter, Volume 36 Issue 929, 2 August 2012, pp.6-7.

[12] Kasim Randeree, ‘Workforce Nationalization in the Gulf Cooperation Council States,’ Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Occasional Paper No.9 (2012), p.8.

[13] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/may/06/bskyb-launches-sky-news-arabia

About the author

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London. His work includes The Logistics and Politics of the British Campaigns in the Middle East (Palgrave, 2010), Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Hurst & Co, 2011) and he was co-editor with David Held of The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order (2011). His forthcoming book, Qatar and the Arab Spring, will be published by Hurst & Co in summer 2014.