Three UAE nationals have been arrested in the past 72 hours, their current whereabouts still unknown. As pro-reform individuals, their detention seems to be a testimony to the failing ‘liberal autocracy’ experiment in the United Arab Emirates. The international community should take immediate note.
With a tribal leader legacy, and credited with founding the UAE federation and harnessing its oil wealth for economic development, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was generally well liked by his people. He had no real need to implement meaningful political reform during his lengthy reign. Instead the plan seemed to be to hold back this particular card so that his succeeding sons would be able to offer reform as their particular ‘gift’ to the people. However, since Zayed’s death in 2004 no such reform has taken place. Zayed’s principal sons – notably the ruler of Abu Dhabi and his crown prince/half brother – have instead played around with the UAE’s largely ineffectual Federal National Council. In 2006 elections were held for half of its 40 seats, but only a few thousand UAE nationals were eligible to vote, and even these were carefully screened. In early 2011, announcements were made that fresh elections would be held, but again the number of contested seats would be limited, only small numbers able to vote.
Seen as the final straw by many educated UAE nationals, especially given the dramatic pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the rest of the Arab world and the UAE government’s rather distasteful involvement in suppressing the Bahraini protests, two petitions were duly signed in March. Both called for universal suffrage and a fully elected national council. Some individuals went further and made public calls for a gradual shift to constitutional monarchy.
The first arrest, on Friday, was of Ahmed Mansoor, founder of the www.uaehewar.net website, which promoted free and fair discussion in the UAE and was blocked with no explanation last year. Mansoor was reportedly offered a high salary position in Pakistan by his state-backed employer (the UAE's main telecoms provider) only days before being seized. He rejected the offer and chosen to stay in the UAE. Subsequently, approximately ten security officers (two in uniform, the rest wearing jeans) came to his apartment and took him away from his family, along with his computers and passport. His Facebook page has since been removed and his final tweets @Ahmed_Mansoor darkly hinted at what he was expecting.
On Saturday another activist, Fahad Al-Shehhy, who had also been participating in online forums and had been calling for greater democracy, was arrested. On Sunday both the Associated Press and CNN reported that Dr. Nasser Ghaith, an academic based at Abu Dhabi’s Sorbonne campus, was also arrested and his computer seized. Most of Dr. Ghaith’s articles had focused on the UAE’s economic development, but recently they had touched on the Arab Spring uprisings. From one piece, on Middle East rulers:
They have announced 'benefits and handouts' assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings, who see freedom as a need no less significant than other physical needs. So they use the carrot, offering abundance. But this only delays change and reform, which will still come sooner or later... No amount of security - or rather intimidation by security forces - or wealth, handouts, or foreign support is capable of ensuring the stability of an unjust ruler.
The UAE authorities have been slow to respond, and as of writing no official statement has been made. In the past, claims would have been made that a criminal or terrorist plot had been cracked, or perhaps the detainees would have been branded as ‘Islamists’. It will be harder this time for the official statement to be convincing, given the recent arrests of other bloggers, activists, and writers in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. The removal of all three UAE nationals from their homes is alarming and requires thorough investigation. If the media reports on Dr. Ghaith’s arrest are accurate then the Sorbonne, along with New York University and all other western universities establishing campuses in the country should probably begin reviewing their ties with the UAE government.