Democracy Crackdown in the UAE

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 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.  


The Annexation of Bahrain?

This week’s bulldozing of the national monument in the centre of Bahrain’s Pearl roundabout reminded me of the Taleban’s dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.  Both were crude and violent attempts by regimes to destroy symbols of a happier past and memories of an alternative national identity.  Serving as an anti-regime rallying point for the past month, Pearl roundabout was on its way to becoming Bahrain’s equivalent of a Tahrir Square, and thus it literally had to go.  Only the day before, in another act of desperation, the Al-Khalifa ruling dynasty invited armed forces from the region’s two most authoritarian states – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to cross the causeway into Bahrain and protect ‘strategic installations’ from protestors.  But have they arrived in Bahrain to do much more?


Simmering rage

Following a ‘day of rage’ on 14 February by thousands of disgruntled citizens, the Al-Khalifa initially tried to disperse the protestors from Pearl roundabout using rubber bullets and live ammunition.  But following international condemnation – including telephone calls from the US and the UK to the Bahraini king – the Bahraini government temporarily gave up on attacking the crowds.  The king responded by deploying the crown prince as his chief negotiator in an effort to begin a dialogue. 

Since then, with dozens of martyrs now buried, the protestors have solidified their demands.  All appear to want a democratic government and an end to traditional monarchy.  All also appear to want the removal of the long-serving prime minister of Bahrain – Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa – who is regarded as having oppressed the majority shia population for many years and thus enforcing sectarian divisions.  The king appears to have been unwilling or unable to meet this key demand and the dialogue subsequently broke down.  Some of the protestors – perhaps the majority of the crowd – even began to call for the removal of the entire dynasty, including the king and his crown prince.


Mercenaries and annexation

Sensing renewed protests, from 1 March the Bahraini National Guard, concerned about its limited manpower and the willingness of Bahrainis to open fire on their fellow countrymen, began advertising in employment newsletters in Lahore, Pakistan (specifically in the Our Jang newspaper).  They offered 525 Bahraini dinars ($1400) per month for army officers and 162 Bahraini dinars ($430) per month for mercenary anti-riot policeman.

But by 13 March it became clear that the Al-Khalifa’s grip on power was already too fragile, as protestors began to move from the Pearl roundabout to the ‘Financial Harbour’ banking district.  For several years Bahrain has been trying to diversify its economy from oil and gas exports given its limited reserves, and one of the economy’s key new sectors is international finance.  As such, the protestors’ ability to blockade this part of the city dealt a severe reputational blow to the ruling family and to Bahrain’s economy, causing credit default swaps to rise dramatically.

Having lost faith in the ability of its security forces, on 15 March the Al-Khalifa invited a force of about 1000-1200 Saudi troops into Bahrain.  Travelling in armoured personnel carriers and followed by a number of support vehicles, the convoy travelled across the Saudi-built causeway that links the Saudi mainland to Bahrain.  Some hours later the Saudi convoy was followed by a smaller convoy of UAE soldiers and riot police, together with accompanying vehicles.  After the forces arrived in Bahrain the causeway was reportedly closed.

Significantly the Bahraini, Saudi, and UAE authorities have all justified the deployment on the grounds that it is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ‘Peninsula Shield’ – the GCC-wide defence force that was set up following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.  It has been claimed that the deployment is in Bahrain solely to return the kingdom to stability and that no GCC forces will attack protestors, with their role being limited to protecting key installations such as government offices, palaces, and oil refineries.  However, there is no evidence that other GCC countries have been willing to contribute to this force (on the contrary, Kuwait has instead sent in medical teams, which were initially turned away). Within hours of its arrival there were reports in the international media (based on Saudi security sources) that a Saudi soldier had been killed as they tried to challenge protestors, while hundreds of freshly wounded protestors were taken in ambulances to hospitals, some of which were blockaded and attacked by pro-regime guards.



Despite the presence of well armed foreign troops and mercenaries, the protests will likely continue for several weeks as the protestors will be unwilling to give ground before their demands are met in full. Protestors will be keen to seek justice for those responsible for the mounting death toll. With the involvement of foreign forces the Al-Khalifa will increasingly be regarded as illegitimate by the majority of the shia population, as well as by some sections of the smaller sunni population -- or at least those that are not being enriched by subsidies.  The US will continue to view the situation in Bahrain with great concern, but ultimately will be unable to intervene or make any public statement condemning the actions of the Al-Khalifa or its Saudi and UAE allies.  Its efforts to contain Iran rely on alliances with all three states, and the operation of its naval base in Bahrain.  Having already made statements condemning the Saudi and UAE involvement in Bahrain, the Iranian government will become increasingly concerned with the plight of Bahrain’s shia population, with which Iran enjoys historic ties.  It is unlikely, however, that Iran will mount any military challenge to Saudi Arabia’s occupation of Bahrain, given the presence of the US base.  Moreover, it seems very unlikely that the Bahraini protestors will actually seek Iranian support, as most seem committed to building a strong democratic state capable of determining its own future.   


Revolution in the Gulf States

With Omani protestors out in force in the northern city of Sohar, and out on the streets of Buraimi - Abu Dhabi's doorstep - the inevitable tide of democracy edges closer and closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two final bulkwarks of traditional monarchy in the Gulf.  Fed up with unaccountable elites and their offspring, all of whom receive generous state subsidies, never need seek meaningful employment, and enjoy lavish 'double lives' in foreign capitals, the ordinary people of the Gulf are waking from four decades of slumber and near total political acquiesence.  Granted, they are not impoverished, nor are they living in shanty-like conditions, as many Egyptians and Tunisians have been suffering. But they are increasingly aware of the billions and perhaps even trillions of dollars of what should be state managed wealth that is being siphoned off at source by the strangleweed-like dynasties sitting at the top. 

With peak oil on the horizon (or already passed, if one considers recent Wikileaks), only decades of Gulf oil exports are left.  And with stalled diversification programmes due to poor planning, corruption, and nepotism - all by-products of the undeveloped political system - the monarchies' economies are going to be tied to oil for the forseeable future.  As a result, the grandchildren and even children of present-day citizens are being doomed to a rather bleak future.

Bahrain has already provided a glimpse into this ugly fate, as its oil reserves are now pretty much finished.  Unable to shift to an extractive state and alter fiscal policy due to decades of subsidizing citizens in return for no representation, the ruling family has run out of options and the Bahraini people have made their move.  And with the Al-Khalifa sanctioning the use of live ammunition (warning: video includes scenes of death) and deploying Pakistani-origin mercenaries on the very first day of protests, the regime has exposed itself for what it really is.

Offering immediate moral support and agreeing that all security options and capabilities should be used to suppress protestors in Bahrain, both the Saudi Arabia and UAE regimes have made their position quite clear.  Both of these governments are counting on "stakeholder populations" that can continue to be kept in their houses by subsidies, but for the reasons above, financial benefits are unlikely to keep working.  Indeed, Saudi protestors have already dismissed King Abdullah's latest offering - US$36 billion in benefits - as an insult.  They have now set a date for their first Day of Rage - 11 March - which explicity calls for an end to the Al-Saud regime.  If live ammunition is used, it will only spur the protestors. 

Similarly, plans are underway in the UAE to organize protest marches.  Long neglected by wealthy Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there are hundreds of thousands of UAE nationals living in modest (at best) conditions in the poorer, "northern Emirates".  Most are frustrated with an increasing wealth gap within the federation, their effective exclusion from federal-level politics, and some are curious as to why large tracts of beachfront land have been handed over to foreign developers.  Moreover, as with Saudi Arabia, there is a substantial population of stateless persons (or "bidoon") in the UAE - people whose parents and grandparents were born and brought up on the land, but who can never or rarely aspire to even basic rights of citizenship.  This is puzzling for them, as loyal, longstanding friends of the regime - including Indian and even western expatriates - have on occasion been granted citizenship.     


The Great Arab Revolution and the Gulf States

At last Egypt is reclaiming its historic role as the political and intellectual hub of the Arab world.  Without doubt a domino effect is taking place throughout the Middle East, as young and not-so-young populations exposed to the super-modernizing forces of the Internet and satellite television oust their anachronistic dictators and dismantle oppressive police states.  Crucially, these are popular revolutions – not the army coups of the 1950s and 1960s.  In this sense they are the first genuine revolutions in the modern Arab world.  And they are being achieved without foreign assistance or interference.  Indeed, the world’s greatest democracies have offered zero moral or logistical support, with the current US and British administrations appearing uncomfortably wrong-footed - and thus risking a generation-long set-back for Anglo-American influence in the "new Middle East". 

Most importantly, perhaps, the revolutions have had no sectarian foundation whatsoever and do not appear to be led by scary, big-bearded "Islamists".  The wounded men and women on the streets are largely educated, English-speaking, and are no strangers to BlackBerrys, Twitter, email, middle class values and democratic principles.  Getting back to the theme of Gulf Stream - this non-Islamist identity, I think, could be the real torpedo for the Al-Saud and the other Gulf autocrats, unless significant steps are taken very soon.  Clearly buffered by strong welfare states and an ability to distribute wealth and employment opportunities to their people, the Gulf states need have no immediate fear of Egyptian-style protests over food prices and economic desperation (though in the case of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, never say never). 

However, their indigenous opponents, who are becoming increasingly organized, can no longer as easily be dismissed as dangerous Islamists – or, in Bahrain’s case, as agents provocateurs stirring some kind of ill-defined sunni-shia conflict.  Definitely, the Gulf rulers can no longer keep pedalling to the rest of the world the bogeyman image that their main opponents are crazy radicals who seek to establish anti-western Islamic theocracies.  I believe they are not and have done for some time.  It’s difficult, of course, to imagine mass uprisings in oil-rich states, but as regime change and democracy begins to encircle the Gulf states, the rulers – most of whom seem unable to implement real change – will soon feel considerable heat from densely populated neighbouring states. I doubt these will tolerate the squandering of the great and very precious pan-Arab oil gift on prestige projects, overseas properties, and other elite expenditure, while millions languish in angry Cairo, Tunis, Amman, and Damascus tenements.


Rule of Law in the United Arab Emirates: 2010 in Review

Some great things are happening in Abu Dhabi and the other members of the United Arab Emirates.  Vibrant economies are being built, employment opportunities are being created, and joint ventures are being set up with leading international companies and institutions. They will - hopefully - someday lead to genuine technology transfers to the domestic economy.  There is little point in me covering any of the above, however, as most of the good news is adequately covered by the UAE's various state-owned and state-affiliated newspapers.  In particular, Abu Dhabi's The National is fast becoming the region's newspaper of record for all things relating to business and the economy.

What does require comment is the rule of law, a subject ignored by the state's media outlets and rarely addressed by the country's largely incapacitated civil society organizations.  Indeed, rule of law in the UAE has always been a painful topic, and if anything has been eroded rather than bolstered over the course of 2010.  So much of what Abu Dhabi and Dubai are trying to do with their economies is underpinned by having a sound international reputation, and the current abuse or absence of rule of law will very soon catch the state's leaders out. This will likely lead to a rapid deterioration in the country's economic prospects, especially in terms of attracting foreign direct investment, tourism, and joint venture partners.  Ultimately, therefore, all UAE citizens and expatriate "stakeholders" will lose out unless the situation is soon redressed. 

Thus far, there have been a few tests of conscience for the major educational and cultural institutions of the world's greatest democracies, which have branches in place or under construction in Abu Dhabi, including France's Sorbonne University and Louvre museum, and New York University and the Guggenheim museum from the US.  But given the current financial climate in the West and the eagerness of Western politicians, academics, and other luminaries to court those with surplus cash, these institutions have held firm.   Nevertheless, as soon as the global economy rights itself and research funding and government grants begin to flow again in countries with elected leaderships and commitments to human rights, future crises of confidence in the UAE will be more testing, as very real reputational risks and the importance of clean global branding will again be remembered.

So what has been going on in 2010?  There have been several disturbing, high profile cases, including the March imprisonment for three months of an Indian couple for ‘exchanging racy text messages’, and the April imprisonment of a British couple in Dubai for allegedly kissing and touching each other in a public place.  While the severity of the latter "crime" is perhaps a necessary conversation that needs to be held in what is supposed to be a tourist-friendly city, what worries me is that the prosecution was built on a sole witness (a two year old infant) who did not appear in court.  Another worrying and rather disgusting case was that of an 18 year old Emirati woman in Abu Dhabi who had tried to press charges against five Emirati men and one Iraqi man for gang-raping her. Forensic evidence supported the charge of gang rape, but the girl chose to drop all charges when she was threatened with two years imprisonment and lashing for having illegal, pre-marital sex.  To my mind, the verdict served as a warning to other women even thinking about such a complaint. 

Another illustrative case is that of an Emirati man originally imprisoned for one year after failing to pay debts. He is now poised to have his sentence extended by five years for "insulting the president" in December after the prison’s water supply was cut.  His insult was apparently overheard by one prison guard – again, a sole witness.  Some may argue, in an ironic fashion one hopes, that the rule of law was perfectly upheld in this case, given that insulting the UAE's president (de facto the hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi) is indeed a crime carrying a five year sentence.  But with even the US ambassador recorded in recent Wikileak cables describing him as 'a distant and uncharismatic personage', does a progressive Gulf state like the UAE really need to hang on to such archaic laws?

There have of course been many other worrying cases over the past year, but by far the kingpin was the one resolved all the way back in January 2010.  Given that it involved a senior member of the ruling family and, some would say, smacked of political interference in the judicial process, it has to my mind cast a shadow over the UAE.  Although muttered about, and discussed on (blocked) Internet forums from time to time, it remains a serious taboo. Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan - a younger half brother of both the emirate's ruler and crown prince - was caught on several videos apparently torturing Asian employees in rather creative ways. It became a subject of great embarrassment for Abu Dhabi in 2009, as many of the videos were posted on and on a (swiftly blocked) website,

In one case the victim is beaten, whipped, electrocuted, and run over by a 4x4 vehicle. In the video Issa is being assisted by a man wearing a uniform who was, according to early media reports of the video, a private security guard. But the uniform is undoubtedly that of a regular Abu Dhabi police officer, and a police vehicle is also in view at one point.  The misunderstanding was seemingly the result of an Abu Dhabi official informing the media that the assistant was not a policeman. 

When ABC News and CNN covered the story in the US it prompted the Abu Dhabi authorities to respond, stating that they had reviewed the video and acknowledged Issa's involvement.  They stated that "the incidents depicted in the video were not part of a pattern of behaviour" and that "all rules, policies, and procedures had been followed correctly by the police department."  Issa’s lawyer: "the story that we think ABC is being told is grossly misleading; it is in large measure demonstrably untrue, and it is defamatory to Sheikh Issa." The UAE Minstry for the Interior stated that all of the parties involved, presumably referring to the victims, had "settled the matter privately", as permitted under Abu Dhabi law.

This response, which promised no accountability for Issa or those other responsible, provoked criticism from Human Rights Watch, which stated that "‘if this is their complete reply, then sadly it’s a scam and a sham… it is the state that is torturing… if the government does not investigate and prosecute these officers, and those commanding the officers."  Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the ruler of Abu Dhabi requesting that he form an independent body to probe both the torture and "the failure of the Ministry for Interior to bring those responsible to justice."  The co-chairman of the US Congress Human Rights Commission was similarly critical of the inaction: "granted that they're strategically located in a key part of the world, but it's hard to imagine that we're going to keep going on as if it were business as usual when this kind of stuff happens… my guess is that this is just the tip of the iceberg."

The strength of this international reaction, coupled with the US temporarily suspending negotiations on a potential US-UAE nuclear technology deal, was seemingly sufficient to force the Abu Dhabi authorities to revisit the Issa torture case. Issa was placed under house arrest until his trial took place in December 2009.  Half of the trial (including the prosecution's witness statements), conducted by an expatriate judge, was held in secret, with The National newspaper beginning its coverage of the trial at only the halfway point - only covering the defence's statements.  Presumably in an effort to ready the UAE's population for the inevitable verdict.   Issa was duly released in January 2010 and - despite being filmed operating a machine gun, an electric cattle prod, driving a vehicle, and stuffing sand down a man's throat - it was claimed he was put into an induced coma by dishonest employees, who were convicted in absentia for extortion and manipulation.

The 2009 Freedom House report on the UAE stated that "the judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the political leadership… although the constitution bans torture, there is compelling evidence that members of the royal family and the country’s police have used torture against political rivals and business associates."  Given the above, what will the 2010 report contain?