The UAE’s reaction to recent political developments in the Arab World has been fearful and oppressive. Rather than embrace chances for change and development UAE has stymied political activism and punished severely those in its country who have presented even mild alternatives to the current power structures.
Recently the state has adopted a far more developed and pervasive programme to alienate, punish and detain the opposition. Some fifty people have been detained in the past few months including many associated with the Islamist party, Al-Islah, though secularists and stateless residents also continue to be targeted.
The result is that the UAE is beginning to look like a state similar to that envisaged in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where a stratified population accepts the plentiful gifts of the state in return for its silent acquiescence to authoritarian rule, while those who object to the system are exiled to faraway lands – a totalitarianism all the more pervasive for being mostly accepted, and even welcomed.
Many of the Emirati population enjoy fantastic wealth and riches. In Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi, they gratefully accept the generosity of sheikhs who, following precedents set by the benevolent and free-spending Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, have dragged their country into the modern world. Glittering buildings, modern healthcare systems and advanced infrastructures make both these cities the envy of the Arab world.
But this is only half the story. Poorer Emirates in the northern part of the country do not enjoy such advantages, and those travelling to Ajman, Sharjah or Umm al Quwain will find much more austere conditions. Indeed, it is of no surprise that from these poorer Emirates emanates a larger body (though still limited in scope) of opposition to the power of the al-Nayhan clan in Abu Dhabi. The majority of those recently detained hail from these northern Emirates.
But the solution to the problem is no mere reallocation of state resources to the poorer Emirates; the desire for greater political rights, even if stemming from unfair redistributions of wealth, is not a thirst that can be assuaged with money. Fundamentally it is a question of redistributing power, allowing a greater role for those on the periphery to have a say in the running of their society. Whether this is viewed through a liberal, conservative or Islamist lens, the first step is the same, a renegotiation of the balance of power between citizen and state. But this is a first step too far for the state, so that even to call for it is interpreted as calling into question one’s own right to citizenship.
However Emiratis by and large understand that citizenship is a gift, not a right. And they, like many other Gulf Arabs, exist in a polities that are twenty-first century versions of the anthropological structures that have for so long existed in the Arab Peninsula. Membership of the tribe and its attendant benefits can be revoked at any time if loyalty to the leadership is questioned. Behaviour that crosses the boundaries of defined social norms is met with collective ostracising.
Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult to see how notions of civic identity in the UAE can change if overarching social norms do not change first. It is unlikely then that a shift in the behaviour of the Emirati state will occur any time soon. Those who push for a redefined relationship between state and citizen may very well face harsh measures for some time to come.