Middle East

Viewpoint: Wealthy and stable UAE keeps the lid on dissent

Dubai skyline Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Modern Dubai mixes glitz and glamour with more traditional values

The United Arab Emirates is considered one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, with an international reputation as a business centre and tourist destination. But behind the glitz and glamour it tolerates no dissent, Gulf expert Christopher Davidson writes.

In mid-February three Emirati sisters, Asma, Mariam and Al-Yazzyah al-Suweidi, were called to a police station in Abu Dhabi and have not been seen since.

They had been tweeting in support of their brother, Issa al-Suweidi, who - along with many others - is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for his purported role in a "coup plot".

Asma had tweeted: "I searched and I did not read in my brother's case any reasonable argument leading to his isolation and imprisonment that is depriving him of life for 10 years."

Meanwhile, Al-Yazzayah, using the hashtag #innocent_people_behind_bars, had pleaded for him to be released from jail because "they had dismantled him".

But why the need for such arrests in a "moderate" Arab country such as the UAE?

A model Arab state?

After all, it is indisputably one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in the region, and is regularly championed as a model for impoverished Arab states to try to emulate.

Only last November, a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times argued that Dubai - the best-developed and most skyscraper-studded of the seven emirates that make up the UAE - was somehow responsible for the Arab Spring of 2011.

Citing a survey conducted by a Dubai-based PR company, along with the thoughts of an expatriate businessmen, Friedman argued that young Arabs who realised they would never get to experience democracy could "at least have Dubai".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some in the UAE enjoy fabulous wealth

What he meant, of course, was that Dubai and the other emirates were still surviving as a sort of poster boy for the "neoliberal" solution that most of the major international financial institutions had been foisting on the rest of the Arab world over the past decade or so.

By selling off national assets to private companies, including foreign investors and multinationals, and creating business environments free of red tape, it had been hoped that politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa could somehow be separated, with authoritarian governments able to serve a caretaker role until some basic degree of prosperity and well-being was achieved.

It was posited that freedoms and rights could then follow at some indeterminate point in the future.

But arguably this strategy for the Arab world was one of the key drivers behind the turmoil that has unfolded after the Arab Spring, as millions of people reacted to the increasingly unequal societies of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

There is no doubt, of course, that the UAE has been able to circumvent the immediate impact of the mass uprisings that spread to these other parts of the Arab world, and which even brought large-scale street protests to Gulf monarchies such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

A generous state

The UAE's relative sanctity has mostly been a function of its ability to keep ramping up wealth distributions to its fairly small number of citizens courtesy of Abu Dhabi - the largest emirate - and its massive oil revenues.

Although such payouts cannot go on for ever, if oil prices continue to remain at least $20 below the UAE's "break-even price", it has definitely played a significant role over the past four years.

Massive salary increases have been announced for the public sector, which is by far the biggest employer of citizens, while welfare benefits have gone up more than 20%. Loan forgiveness packages have also been introduced for poorer nationals.

So why is there the perceived need for such a crackdown on those who speak out?

The answer lies in the UAE's determination that no vibrant political debate should be allowed to interfere with its goal of providing a dissent-free investment environment.

As such, almost any sign of opposition is clamped down on.

Most dramatically, in something of a grand show trial in 2013, 94 citizens were tried by a court that barred international journalists and human rights organisations from attending.

Sixty-nine men, including Issa al-Suweidi, along with judges, academics and students, were given sentences of up to 15 years for the crime of "compromising the security of the state".

Mohammed al-Roken, a well-known lawyer who has written articles on human rights in the UAE for OpenDemocracy and other outlets, was among their number.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Activists have accused the UAE of cracking down on peaceful activists since the Arab Spring

Since then numerous others have been arrested in circumstances usually referred to as "enforced disappearances" by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The common thread is that most of these prisoners have been affiliated with a moderate Islamist institution in the UAE that dates back to the 1960s.

The Islah (Reform) movement once enjoyed very good relations with the ruling families, and even had a long-standing arrangement that gave it considerable influence over Islamic affairs and education in the country.

But Islah's commitment to keep pushing for evolution towards democracy - in line with a clause in the UAE constitution of 1971 - has effectively placed it into direct confrontation with the country's now committedly apolitical ruling families.

Less obviously, Islah has also served a useful bogeyman role, as most of the arrests have been publicly blamed, albeit without substantive evidence, on some kind of external plot involving the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Tellingly, in a 2006 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi conceded to US officials that "if an election were held tomorrow, the [UAE] Muslim Brotherhood would win".

Indeed, since 2011, arrests of dozens of supposedly Islamist Egyptian and Libyan expatriates, and even Qataris in transit through UAE airports, have taken place in parallel to those of Islah supporters.

Foreign intervention

This contrasts with Gulf monarchies such as Bahrain, where Islamists from the Sunni minority have largely been supportive of the government, and instead the Shia majority community has been demonized for its supposed links to foreign Shia powers such as Iran, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is likely that the UAE authorities would have done the same, but the Shia Emirati population is much smaller, well integrated into political and economic life, and considered loyal.

On an external level the UAE's response to the Arab Spring is also raising eyebrows.

Over the past couple of years it has taken a much more proactive role, intervening in the affairs of other Arab states in a role best described as "counter-revolutionary".

The UAE, far beyond its more public contributions to US-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State and the bombing by Saudi forces in Yemen, has also dispatched its aircraft to target groups in Libya it dislikes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The UAE has spent billions on buying arms from Western nations

Meanwhile, its state coffers are being used to bankroll a military regime in Egypt that it helped install after the coup in 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood's democratically elected, if incompetent, civilian government.

Again, at first glance, these risky endeavours - just like the domestic crackdown - make little sense.

The UAE is widely regarded as enjoying firm protection from the Western powers, not only due to its role as a stable hub for the circulation of capital, but also because of its history of ensuring that a substantial chunk of its petrodollars are recycled to the West.

Its largesse is evident in the large sums that the UAE spends on arms imports, concessions being granted to multinational oil companies, and even major tie-ups with leading cultural and educational brands such as the Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University.

But with fast-growing awareness in the Gulf state leaderships that their alliances may not hold up indefinitely in the face of US oil self-sufficiency and a grand bargain between world powers and Iran, the UAE and some of its neighbours are increasingly taking matters into their own hands as the broader region seemingly continues to turn hostile to their interests.

Christopher Davidson is Reader in Middle East Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf monarchies.