The United Arab Emirates: frontiers of the Arab Spring

The United Arab Emirates has yet to face Arab Spring street protests, as have Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and its other neighbours. Nonetheless its seven ruling families are now finally being challenged directly by a number of brave citizens, some of whom are publicly calling for regime change. 

Christopher M Davidson
8 September 2012

The United Arab Emirates has yet to face Arab Spring street protests, as have Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and its other neighbours. Nonetheless its seven ruling families are now finally being challenged directly by a number of brave citizens, some of whom are publicly calling for regime change. This is because the UAE currently suffers from among the heaviest restrictions on free speech and the media in the region, and there has been mounting frustration among the more educated sections of the national population, especially with regard to corruption, lack of transparency, and human rights abuses. Moreover, there is a widening wealth gap in the UAE and not all of its national population are being provided with adequate economic opportunities. This is leading to many of its less educated citizens – especially in the northern emirates – also beginning to voice their discontent. Thus, even though the UAE has embarked on a massive Saudi-style spending splurge in the wake of the Arab Spring in order to appease the national population, this has not been enough, with 2011 and 2012 witnessing the unprecedented detaining of dozens of political prisoners along with a marked tightening of civil society.

Notably, in early 2011 petitions were signed calling for a fully elected parliament and a move towards constitutional monarchy. This led to the jailing of five of the most prominent signatories – now known as the ‘UAE Five’ – and the dismantling of several of the civil society associations that had supported the petitions. The government then shifted its focus to top-down reforms and distributing largesse to the national population. In addition to an expansion of the electorate for the September 2011 Federal National Council elections, massive salary increases were also announced for public sector employees, in some cases of up to 100 percent, while welfare benefits were increased by up to 20 percent and a $2.7 billion package to assist poorer nationals with outstanding loans was set up. Interviewed by a state-backed newspaper, ministerial employees benefiting from the salary increases stated 'this is not the first time the President has surprised us with his generosity... it is not about the financial benefit, but about how the people of the country are taken care of' and 'it was a big surprise that makes everyone happy, it is like a prize for all.' Similarly, other interviewees stated they planned to use the increases to buy new cars, indulge their wives and children, and upgrade rooms in their houses. [1]

In parallel to this spending programme, it was revealed in May 2011 that the UAE had been hiring a private army of foreign soldiers. Much like the focus on mercenaries in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it seemed that the UAE authorities were similarly unwilling to take any chances on uncontrollable street protests in the wake of the Arab Spring. Revealed by the New York Times in an extensive report, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi had been employing the founder of Blackwater, a private military company, to create a secret 800-strong force made up of Columbian and South African fighters. At a cost of over $500 million, a base had been constructed in Abu Dhabi's interior and the men were brought into the UAE posing as construction workers. According to documents associated with the project, the force's raison d'être was to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks, and - crucially - 'put down internal revolts.' Further to this latter objective, the report also stated that the Blackwater founder was under strict instructions to hire no Muslim mercenaries as 'Muslim soldiers... could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims,' while another document associated with the project described 'crowd-control operations where the crowd is not armed with firearms but does pose a risk using improvised weapons such as clubs and stones.'[2]

Within days of a November 2011 report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which concluded that the imprisonment of the UAE Five was arbitrary and that the UAE government should release the men and pay them reparations,[3] they were freed in time for the UAE's national day celebrations on 2 December. Although the men were convicted of 'publicly insulting the UAE's leaders,' sentenced to three years imprisonment, and then pardoned within 24 hours - seemingly in an effort to portray Abu Dhabi's ruler as magnanimous - their names were not cleared of the supposed crime. Nonetheless, soon after their release the UAE Five immediately resumed their online activities, appearing more robust than before. They renewed most of their demands and were quickly followed by thousands of UAE nationals on various social media platforms. By the end of the year the opposition seemed to have broadened, with the government facing further criticism for stripping seven Islamist critics, including a judge, of their citizenship. Referred to as the ‘UAE Seven,’ these protesters claimed they were 'unjustly targeted for their political views' after having earlier signed a petition on behalf of an indigenous Islamist organisation entitled the Reform and Social Guidance Association [4] which was calling for an end to 'all oppressive measures against advocates of reform in the country.'[5]

Over the course of 2012 the situation has greatly deteriorated. In March a young UAE national [6] was arrested for tweeting about the Arab Spring. He was accused of ‘damaging national security and social peace’ and handed over to a state security court, [7] before being re-arrested at a mosque in April. In May a prominent stateless person [8] - one of the original UAE Five and well known for running a website detailing the plight of the UAE’s bidoon - was arrested, stripped of his residency papers, and deported to Thailand – a country he had never visited before. [9] By the end of July dozens more activists had been arrested, bringing the total number of political prisoners to 54. These included academics, human rights activists, Islamists, and even a ruling family member.[10] The former director of Abu Dhabi’s educational zone [11] and former president of the Jurists’ Association [12] were arrested along with a number of lawyers,[13] some of whom were detained when they tried to represent arrested activists.[14] In some cases the sons of these men were imprisoned[15] and lawyers from Kuwait and Qatar trying to travel to the UAE to defend the detainees were denied entry. Interestingly, the 54 prisoners represent all seven emirates, almost all had active Twitter accounts prior to their arrests, and they represent more or less the full spectrum of opposition in the country. Most are being held without charge and several have reported incidents of torture, with some having been beaten or followed by plain clothes security prior to their detentions. One detainee, originally accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation, was then accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, before finally being officially accused of embezzlement at his workplace. [16]

Reminiscent of 2011’s collapsing North African regimes, a number of the recent UAE arrests have been accompanied by official government press releases claiming that there is an ‘international plot’ and that the opposition has connections to ‘foreign organisations and outside agendas.’[17] Meanwhile, the ruler of Ra’s al-Khaimah delivered a speech in May 2012, also reported by the official state news agency, warning ‘those who poked their noses into the UAE’s [internal] affairs to mind their own business.’ He went on to explain, ‘ We hear today... that there are some who are trying to tamper with the stability of the UAE. I would like to say to them: the people of the UAE don’t need lessons from anyone. They are confident in themselves and in the solidarity that they share. They don’t change.’ Referring to the aforementioned citizenship-stripping practice, he also explained, ‘He who does not like this should leave for another place. Any treachery is a shame for him, and for his country,’ before concluding that ‘the UAE is sheltered by the heritage of Sheikh Zayed and by the achievements of the president, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa, and of the rulers and Supreme Council members, and is safeguarded by its people, who are loyal to the nation, the country and its leadership. We don’t care about the raising of trivial things and arguments that have already been defeated.’[18] Most recently, even the ruler of Sharjah – a key benefactor to several western universities – joined the chorus, explaining that ‘...these people were held at airports, or at border crossings with Oman or Qatar... they were running away to establish an outside organisation.’ In a sort of twisted paternalism, he claimed that the arrests were part of a measure to ‘help those who deviated’ and that the state’s measures were ‘to protect its sons’ and to provide ‘treatment, not punishment.’[19] These ruling family backlashes will most probably intensify, and may take an anti-western turn, since a London-based, Syrian-style observatory for human rights – the Emirates Centre for Human Rights – has recently been established. Detailing the various human rights abuses in the UAE and recording the status of all political prisoners, it has begun to lobby against the UAE regime in the international community.[20]

With no signs of any softening of the current police state strategies, and with little sign that opposition demands will quieten, the future for the UAE’s ruling families is thus a little less certain than it was a couple of years ago. In particular, as with the Saudi and Kuwaiti spending programmes, it is questionable how long the UAE’s state-level generosity can be sustained. A decree was circulated in Abu Dhabi government departments in March 2012 stating that a number of the promised big salary increases could not, after all, be delivered. Moreover, it is unlikely that the situation in the poorer northern emirates can be contained or remedied in the near future, and street protests or other manifestations of opposition may well soon emerge,for example in Ra’s al-Khaimah. Most importantly, the UAE monarchies have faced a serious and likely permanent loss of legitimacy over the past year, largely because of the alacrity with which they resorted to repression. Although the bulk of the population has certainly been scared by the large number of arrests, especially as they have included prominent and educated UAE nationals, the strategy has backfired to the extent that total acquiescence has not been achieved and the UAE's international reputation is undoubtedly going to become tarnished.

Tellingly, an extensive recent Reuters report revealed that UAE students planned to upload videos onto YouTube and Facebook regarding the need for political reform, and intended to meet in secret to discuss democracy and how the country’s oil wealth should be spent. Referring to the economic benefits received courtesy of her nationality, but explaining how this was no longer sufficient, one student interviewee stated, ‘I'm well off. I don't need a revolution because I'm hungry. I want my freedoms, my dignity.’ Having provided the journalist with an alias, she explained this was because of her ‘fear of pursuit by security forces.’ Meanwhile, other students complained of their rulers and referred to the inevitability of the Arab Spring impacting on the UAE, explaining that ‘...it's like wave. 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.’[21].

1 . The National, 1 December 2011.

2. New York Times, 14 May 2011.

3 . The Arabic Human Rights Network press release, 14 February 2012.

4 . The UAE reform movement – sometimes referred to as ‘Al-Islah’ - is indigenous, founded in 1974, and is not affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.

5. Associated Press, 22 December 2011.

6. Salah Al-Dhafairi.

7. Associated Press, 12 March 2012.

8 . Ahmed Abd Al-Khaleq.

9. Al-Jazeera News, 16 July 2012.

10. Sultan bin Kayed Al-Qasimi, a member of the Ra’s al-Khaimah ruling family. He was held under house arrest at the ruler’s palace.

11. Issa Khalifa Al-Suwaidi.

12 . Muhammad Al-Mansoori.

13. Most notably Salim Hamdoon Al-Shehhi, Abdulsalam Darwish,and Muhammad Al-Roken.

14. Human Rights Watch, 1 August 2012; Emirates Centre for Human Rights, 31 July 2012.

15. For example Rashid bin Muhammad Al-Roken.

16. Muhammad Rashid Al-Kalbani, an Omani passport holder.

17. WAM, 15 July 2012.

18. WAM, 7 May 2012.

19. Gulf News, 2 August 2012.

20. www.echr.org.uk

21 . Reuters, 11 May 2011.

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