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UAE crushes dissent at home, tarnishing its image abroad

UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (2nd R), Dubai's Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (2nd L) and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan (L)
UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (2nd R), Dubai's Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (2nd L) and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan (L)

REUTERS/Ben Job

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone to great lengths to market itself to the world as a cosmopolitan oasis and regional hub for education, culture, and finance. Substantial donations to New York University and the Sorbonne have lured these prestigious institutions to open satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi. The Guggenheim and Louvre have also expanded their collections to satellite museums in the Emirati capital. However, as the UAE authorities escalate their repression of civil society, the cracks in the country's veneer of relative tolerance are becoming more apparent.

In recent weeks, the UAE has made headlines for its crackdown on Emiratis advocating for expanded civil liberties and political freedoms. Much of the attention has been focused on the government's response to the Islamist group Al-Islah (Association for Reform and Guidance), a perceived affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood that the authorities claim is intent on violently overthrowing the regime. The UAE recently put over 90 real or suspected Islah activists on trial for allegedly planning a coup. However, there is no evidence that Al-Islah is anything other than a civil society group calling for closer adherence to Islamic precepts in everyday life. The debate over whether Al-Islah is in league with foreign groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is a red herring that distracts from more pressing concerns about the continued crackdown on civil society in general.

Despite the breakneck pace of its modernization and economic development, the UAE remains one of the more repressive countries in a highly repressive region. While less than a quarter of its roughly 8 million residents are citizens, the political system allows just 129,000 citizens to vote for half of the seats in a pseudo-legislative advisory body that possesses no real power. The other half is appointed by the government, which in turn is run by a council of the seven emirates' dynastic rulers.

Although regime apologists claim that there is no support for political reform among Emiratis, an unprecedented number of activists, reformists, bloggers, judges, and lawyers—not all of whom are Islamists—have been arrested over the past two years as the authorities attempt to inoculate themselves against any democratic contagion from the Arab Spring.

In addition to domestic dissidents, foreign academics and nongovernmental organizations are being swept up in the regime's crackdown. The UAE recently denied entry to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a scholar from the London School of Economics and an outspoken critic of the UAE's repression of political reform advocates. He had been scheduled to speak, at a University of Sharjah conference on the Arab Spring, about the uprising in Bahrain, which the Bahraini government has brutally suppressed with military support from the UAE. In 2012, Matt Duffy, a professor of journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, was released from his contract and expelled from the country after he criticized government policies toward freedoms of expression and the press.

In March 2012, the local offices of the National Democratic Institute, which is funded by the U.S. government, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation were shut down by the UAE authorities. The RAND Corporation and Gallup were also forced to shutter their offices last year. Clearly these are not Islamist groups, nor is it likely that they planned a violent overthrow of the regime.

Such repression earned the country score declines in Freedom in the World 2013, the latest edition of Freedom House's annual report on political rights and civil liberties. The UAE currently ranks among the bottom 20 countries worldwide in every civil liberties category that Freedom House measures save one: rule of law. Even in that category, it is still in the bottom 25 percent and tied with countries like Mauritania, Venezuela, and Qatar.

The UAE is not the only wealthy Gulf country that has intensified repression of civil society since the Arab Spring. Both Oman and Qatar have stepped up efforts to stifle dissent among their populations. Saudi Arabia remains among the most repressive environments in the world, and the violent response by the Bahraini government to its people's calls for political reform is well documented. Yet the Gulf countries, especially the UAE and Qatar, are very protective of their public image and prestige abroad. Indeed, Qatar is keen to portray itself not just as the host of Al-Jazeera, but as the generous sponsor of popular uprisings in places like Libya and Syria.

It is also important to note that all of the Gulf countries are key allies of the United States. The Sunni minority regime in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been able to violently suppress dissent without strong objections from Washington. The UAE recently made a significant purchase of U.S. weapons systems in an attempt to deter aggression from Iran, and Qatar houses an important U.S. air base and logistical hub. All of these countries would be crucial to the United States in any potential showdown with Iran. But when U.S. envoys ignore human rights abuses in these countries, or worse yet, explain them away, as Ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin recently did in an interview with the Khaleej Times, the United States makes itself complicit in the repression.

As recent history has shown in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region, the continued targeting of nonviolent Islamist groups by authoritarian regimes only adds to those groups' credibility and support among the public, and weakens the legitimacy of the authorities. If the UAE government wants to convince citizens that its policies are better for the country's future than the program of the opposition, it ought to engage in public debate and civil discourse with the Islamists or any other reformist group, creating an arena for free expression in which all sides can make their case without fear of deportation, imprisonment, or disappearance.

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