A recent European Parliament resolution condemning the human rights record of the UAE has seen strong defense from supporters of the Gulf state citing the rulers as following a path of enlightened progression and fighting Islamic extremists. The new UAE Cybercrimes Law exposes the true nature of the regime as one attempting to cling onto its authoritarian rule at all costs, and silencing calls for reform. The question - for those like Nirj Deva, Conservative MEP for South East England, who described the resolution as ‘incorrect and misguided’, asking ‘why are we talking about the UAE?’ - is whether they are defending the rulers of the UAE because they believe in the liberal image of the state or because of lucrative trade links with the west?
The European Parliament resolution condemned the continued detention without charge of sixty-four political prisoners, where the rule of law has failed to be applied as detainees have not been put on trial and credible allegations of torture persist. The Conservative bloc of MEPs who opposed the resolution stated that the authorities are dealing with hardline Islamists who wish to roll back women’s rights and burn down churches. This has been a well-peddled line by defenders of the crackdown, yet no evidence has been produced to support such claims. Human rights lawyers, judges, academics and student leaders are among those detained, including Dr. Mohamed al-Roken who was recently awarded the Al Karama prize for defending human rights.
The sixty-four, which in a country with a population of fewer than one million leaves the UAE with one of the highest per capita rates of political prisoners in the region, were arrested for supporting changes to make the Federal National Council wholly elected and responsible for the law-making process. The crackdown itself has deepened in recent weeks with an 18-year-old poet and blogger detained, bank accounts of detainees’ relatives suspended and travel bans imposed on supporters of those held. The most worrying development has been new restrictions on the last avenue of free speech in the UAE, the internet, as the crackdown progresses from arrests to systemic legal changes further restricting freedom of speech and association.
The new Cybercrimes Law criminalizes criticism of the country’s rulers, bans the promoting of public demonstrations and outlaws citizens from passing information to independent journalists and human rights organizations. By criminalizing calls for change to the governance structure, the ruling al-Nayan family has demonstrated their unwillingness to meet citizen demands for greater political participation and proved themselves to be neither progressive nor tolerant. Conservative MEPs may have defended the crackdown as being one against extremist Islamists but this law demonstrates that the true nature of the repression is to stem the flow of criticism and silence citizens advocating for change.
The EU’s new strategic framework, which places human rights at the core of its relations with third party countries, is commendable and it is impressive that a resolution condemning the rights record of a vital trading partner has passed. The importance of the UAE-EU relationship cannot be understated, with trade totaling $20.25 billion in the first six months of 2012, something the UAE’s EU Ambassador attempted to use as leverage in an attempt to stop the resolution passing. In a 2,600-word email sent to MEPs the ambassador said the resolution would ‘needlessly damage EU-UAE relations’.
Placing human rights at the core of the relationship with the UAE is not simply a noble action but a politically expedient one. If the west wishes to continue enjoying the benefits of lucrative trade, understanding the political landscape of the UAE is crucial. Blindly supporting the ruling family is naïve and fails to demonstrate an grasp of the implications of citizen repression.
Nasser bin Ghaith, an Emirati economist who was arrested last year for supporting democratic reforms, has written ‘no amount of security – or rather intimidation by security forces – is capable of ensuring the stability of an unjust ruler’. Defenders of the UAE should take note: the approach of the rulers to emerging calls for reform has been to brutally treat the perceived reformist leaders with indeterminate detention and torture whilst criminalizing all forms of criticism. Disturbingly, the 2011 New York Times expose on the private mercenary army of Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, suggests that should the Cybercrimes Law fail to stem calls for change, the next step would be to violently deal with any subsequent civil uprisings.
In a country that has hitherto avoided the street protests that have characterized the Arab Spring this may seem fanciful, but the seeds of public dissent are being sown. Over 100 members of the 64 detainees’ families recently protested outside the Supreme Court of Abu Dhabi and were met with riot police in a tense standoff. Moreover, although western eyes see the UAE through the opulence of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in the northern emirates there is burgeoning poverty and unemployment. This is particularly true in the northernmost emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, a place the dividends of hydrocarbon receipts fail to reach and where citizens are growing restless, as can be seen in the fact of the many current political prisoners who reside there.
Those who have defended the UAE may be basing their opinions on the carefully cultivated international image of the state. Sponsors of the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix and high profile owners of Manchester City Football Club, the al-Nayan family have used their wealth to project an image of liberalism. Indeed, this has been so successful that Dubai has recently submitted a bid to host the World Expo 2020 and Gulf News has reported that the UAE will bid for the 2024 Olympics. Not only should defenders of the UAE look beyond these showcase events that belie a terrible record on civil and political rights but also selection committees should carefully consider the record of shocking conditions for migrant workers who will no doubt be the hands that build any required stadia.
Defence of the UAE’s rulers will no doubt continue but the days of defending it on the grounds that it is following a path of enlightened progress are over. The Cybercrimes Law proves the unwillingness of the rulers to engage in furthering civil and political rights for their citizens and emphasizes their intent to hang onto total control at all costs.
The rulers of the UAE may believe that they can follow a different path to those that have fallen around them, in the Arab Spring but by refusing to institute change from the top there will no doubt be increasing calls for change from below. By attempting to silence vocal critics of the regime and criminalizing all forms of dissent the rulers are leading the UAE down a dark path that ends with a private mercenary army set up, among other reasons, ‘to take control of civil uprisings’.
If valuable trade links are to be preserved then rather than blindly supporting the actions of the ruling family, supporters should impress upon them that furthering civil and political rights would protect stability. An anonymous Emirati student has described change in light of the Arab Spring: ‘If the whole world is changing and this wave is coming and taking everyone with it, well, it’s somehow going to cross this place as well’. The rulers of the UAE should change course and engage with legitimate citizen calls for democratic reforms. As the EU has done, defenders of the UAE should put human rights at the heart of its relationship with the Emirates, or they run the risk of supporting citizen repression and fostering instability.