Dubai’s stifled voice: censorship vs progress in the UAE

Christopher M Davidson
22 October 2008

The United Arab Emirates is powering into the 21st century on the back of two rapidly diversifying macroeconomies.  The wealthiest emirate of Abu Dhabi is supplementing its massive oil and petrochemicals industries with a range of sovereign wealth funds, high- technology heavy industries, green-energy industries, and cultural tourism.  In parallel, the high-profile second emirate of Dubai has been pioneering "free-zone" investment-parks for foreign companies, an innovative real-estate sector, and mass tourism. 

Christopher M Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Durham University. He is the author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success (C Hurst, 2008) and The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival.

Also by Christopher M. Davidson in openDemocracy:

"Dubai: spots on the sun" (25 June 2008)A sound international reputation is crucial to the survival and success of both economies. Abu Dhabi must be able to continue strategically positioning its wealth in overseas markets and to keep attracting well-branded international industrial partners; while Dubai must sustain its inflow of foreign direct investment and the UAE's standing as a safe and hospitable tourist destination. 

The demands of a sophisticated 21st-century economy, however, require more than "more of the same". The criteria for business and social success in an intensely competitive global marketplace increasingly include transparency and credibility too. These vital requirements are especially pressing for the UAE, which seeks to build a sustainable knowledge economy by creating partnerships with discerning international university brands and other research-focused institutions.

The agents of control

The problem for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is that it faces this future with much of its official face turned towards the past. An atmosphere of secrecy prevails, as a number of conservative, anachronistic bodies seek tight control over the flow of information. The result is to thwart efforts towards a wider liberalisation.  For many years the most maligned of these bodies was the federal ministry for information and culture, which effectively controlled all domestic newspaper and television output and the importation of all books and films into the UAE. The ministry was finally disbanded in 2006, but a number of its employees were assigned to a successor institution: the National Media Council (NMC). 

This council's more wholesome responsibilities include the supply of government press -releases through its news agency and the provision of funding for local filmmakers. Even the latter case can involve a form of censorship, however, as successful recipients have admitted that they have self-censored in order to pass the test of "suitability" and get the money. 

Also on Dubai in openDemocracy:

Faisal Devji, "Dubai cosmopolis" (19 April 2007)The NMC's less palatable duties include running a department for external information.  When there is bad publicity concerning the UAE in foreign newspapers the department contacts the publication in question and seeks to limit the damage.  Most worryingly, the department's employees (including British expatriates), have on a number of occasions contacted academic publishers - using their full governmental titles - to complain about the UAE-related content of books and articles and insist on printed apologies.  Although these are invariably refused, the policy is nevertheless off-putting for those writers who may wish to develop an interest in the country (see "Dubai: spots on the sun", 25 June 2008).

There are claims that the NMC has become more tolerant and now only censors books that offend Islam or are pornographic. But there is little doubt that it still actively bans a wide range of books, or - more accurately perhaps - indefinitely denies approval to willing distributors.  The reports on the UAE prepared by the United States's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor confirm this view.  In 2008 the UAE release of an academic book relating to Dubai was delayed by more than four months by the censors (see Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, C Hurst, 2008).  Other recent examples include a book by an Emirati poet that was banned due to the wording of its title, an essay on the condition of the UAE's universities by an esteemed Emirati academic, and an English-language novel whose blurb associated Dubai with prostitution. 

The limits of freedom

openDemocracy writers explore the worlds of the Gulf states - from political economy and security to culture and memory:

Maryam Maruf, " Spider-Man!" (31 October 2002)

Saeed Taji Farouky, " Shadowplay in Dubai" (21 December 2005)

Paul Rogers, " Abqaiq's warning" (2 March 2006)

Mohamed Al Roken, " Terror, law and human rights in the Arab Gulf states" (10 April 2006)

Jane Kinninmont, " Castles built on sand" (23 August 2006)

Emile El-Hokayem, "Arab Gulf states: the Iran complex" (31 August 2006)

Mai Yamani, " Mecca: Islam's cosmopolitan heart" (6 September 2006)

Fred Halliday, " Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (23 March 2007)

Bissane El-Cheikh, " Riyadh: city of women" (7 March 2008)

Paul Rogers, " A tale of two futures" (1 May 2008

The NMC is also responsible for enforcing the federal press-and-publications law.  True, this legislation is currently being amended, and no longer can the NMC easily impose jail terms on offending journalists; but large fines remain possible, and journalistic misconduct is still considered to be a criminal offence.  More importantly, the NMC can effectively rely on a body of journalists who have been weaned on decades of self-censorship: the majority of reporters are expatriates and few are willing to jeopardise their tax-free salaries and livelihood. 

This is exacerbated by an atmosphere of ambiguity, with few editors quite able to establish what is permissible.  In January 2008, the director-general of the NMC admitted on a US radio interview that it was still a punishable offence for journalists to criticise directly members of the UAE's seven ruling families. This stance may itself serve as a brake on freedom of speech, especially because members of these families hold so many government positions (and are thus de facto and by their own volition public figures).

In the most awkward position has been the UAE's widely read English-language press.  Although one new newspaper has managed to go a step further than the other daily newspapers by adding much needed in-house analysis to the NMC's turgid press-releases, the mood of freedom of speech surrounding its inception nevertheless appears to have waned as the usual self-censorship has taken root and the reality of operating under the umbrella of the NMC has set in. Several commissioned pieces on key topics have been killed (in the "national interest"), and government officials have been granted prime column space to discredit private individuals and civil-society actors - with no comments being solicited from the injured parties.

The war of the web

The persisting censorship of the internet and telecommunications is equally at odds with the needs of the UAE's new economy.  It is widely believed that website usage and telephone calls are monitored. Moreover, the bulk of households and commercial buildings still have their internet access fed through proxy servers, which in turn are supervised by a telecommunications regulatory authority.  This authority is only supposed (as per official memoranda) to block websites falling into specific "prohibited content categories".  These include sites relating to terrorism, social-networking sites that may promote premarital relations, pornography, and services such as Skype that allow person-to-person telecommunications (thereby bypassing the UAE duopoly's exorbitant telephone tariffs).

However, a large number of other websites are periodically blocked.  Notably, sites containing information about political prisoners, human trafficking, or other human-rights abuses that either directly or indirectly mention the UAE are regularly blocked.  The best example is www.uaeprison.com - which details abuses of the justice system.  Websites that contain information on Judaism or testimonies of former Muslims who have converted to Christianity are also often blocked.  International news websites that contain critical stories relating to members of the ruling families are always censored.  Personal blogs can also be blocked.

As with banned books (which can always be ordered online), internet censorship is becoming even more of an anachronism, as many of the new free-zones and universities in the UAE already have "direct" internet connections and are therefore above the proxy servers.  Also, many of the UAE's most recent real-estate developments have their own internet connections, some of which offer unobstructed access.  A new generation of internet technologies will further undermine these controls as bit-torrent services allow downloads of content directly from other computers, including websites that may be blocked by the proxy server.  Social-networking sites have also evolved, and have become an everyday feature of people's lives: the UAE's proxy will never be able to censor Facebook on the grounds that it facilitates premarital relations - which it certainly can - as the uproar from millions of UAE residents would be immeasurable.

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