The Making of a Police State

Over the last few years, the UAE has become increasingly oppressive. The recent crackdowns show how bad it really is.


The arrests over the last week of three pro-democracy activists in the United Arab Emirates should come as no surprise. Having sent troops to participate in the Saudi-led crackdown in Bahrain and having supported Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until his final days in office, the UAE regime has already signaled its strong preference for the status quo and its fear of greater Arab freedoms.

Previously a collection of federated, tribe-based, traditional monarchies, led by the well-liked Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan until his death in 2004, the UAE has since been morphing into a sophisticated police state led by Zayed’s two principal sons from their Abu Dhabi power base — the UAE’s oil-rich, wealthiest emirate. Unlike their father, who had to consult with other tribal elders and powerful merchants across the entire country, the new rulers now govern with zero accountability over an increasingly urbanized and Abu Dhabi-dependent population, the movements and communications of which are now carefully monitored and censored.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense that the UAE would be caught up in the Arab Spring. With massive oil exports and a GDP per capita rivaling that of Switzerland, the government has historically been able to distribute wealth, subsidies, and economic opportunities to its citizens in exchange for political acquiescence. Moreover, with nearly 90 percent of the population now expatriates, none of whom can aspire to citizenship and most of whom are in the UAE for tax-free employment or conditions better than in their home countries, there should be no political demands from that quarter either.

The real picture, however, is a bit different, at least regarding UAE nationals. Almost all of the UAE’s economic opportunities are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while the five poorer northern emirates have been left to languish. Despite occasional "emergency" handouts from Abu Dhabi, including one last month, the wealth gap has continued to grow, year on year. Unemployment is increasing, and there are regular electricity blackouts. Discrimination is also more noticeable. Northerners, who account for at least half the indigenous population, have become more and more outspoken, their voices being amplified by blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other difficult-to-censor Internet communications.

But there is no stereotypical opponent in the UAE. Some are poor, and some are stateless bidoon — people long denied citizenship despite generations of ancestry. Many are also from the richer emirates and are well heeled and well educated, but are simply appalled by the lack of transparent government, the repression of civil society, and the country’s failing justice system.

The rallying cry for all groups has now become political reform, with the UAE’s complete lack of democratic institutions becoming more painfully apparent as revolutions and protests have spread through the region, even reaching the Persian Gulf. Having no real need for a parliament, Zayed left this "gift" to his sons to introduce. But pure autocracy has proved too tempting, and all they have done is play around with the UAE’s rather ineffectual mock legislature, the Federal National Council. In 2006 elections were stage-managed for half of the council’s 40 seats, but only a few thousand handpicked nationals were eligible to vote. In early 2011, as thousands of Egyptians, Tunisians, and Bahrainis were taking to the streets, the UAE announced that fresh elections would be held. But once again, only a limited number of voters were to be allowed.

For activists, this was the final straw. Two petitions were drawn up in March and signed by 130 of the UAE’s leading intellectuals, political activists, and human rights defenders. Their demands — above all a fully elected parliament and universal suffrage — were far from revolutionary, with the majority being happy to work toward a constitutional monarchy committed to human rights and other basic international principles.

The first arrest was of Ahmed Mansoor. A Dubai-based telecommunications engineer, he co-founded the website nearly two years ago. As the only free and fair UAE discussion forum, it was blocked by the country’s proxy server about a year ago with no explanation. Its members have been repeatedly harassed by the security services ever since. A signatory of the petition and a prolific blogger, Mansoor said he was offered a well-paid position in Pakistan by his state-owned employer only a week ago. He refused to leave the UAE, and on Friday, April 8, he was taken from his family, along with his passport and computers, by approximately 10 officers, only two of them in uniform. In his final tweets on @Ahmed_Mansoor, he rather darkly predicted his arrest, suspecting the police would plant something in his car and detailing their attempts to call him down from the building. "They do not seem to have an arrest warrant and they want to take me in. It should be done the right way. I’m not going out to them," he wrote.

The second arrest, the following day, was of Fahad Salem al-Shehhi. Shehhi, who was taken from his home in Ajman, where his wife had been studying, was also a frequent blogger and had participated in the UAE discussion forum. The third, and perhaps most symbolic, arrest came on Sunday, April 10, when Nasser bin Ghaith was taken from his home in Dubai. Bin Ghaith, a noted economist, was a professor at the UAE Armed Forces College and a lecturer at the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi campus. Most of his articles have focused on the UAE’s economic development, some carefully critical of Dubai’s many misadventures. But recently he turned his attention to the Arab Spring, with a blog post on Gulf 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.

What will happen to the detainees? There is hope that they will be released soon, as the new realities of Internet communication means that millions are now aware of their arrests. But as of this writing, no official statement had been released by the government, and the local media and usual local pundits have been too frightened to offer an opinion. In the past, activists were usually accused of being party to ill-defined criminal or terrorist plots, being an "Islamist," or having possessed drugs or alcohol. If they were released, they would usually be dogged by a smear campaign. But such crude strategies are unlikely to work this time. If anything, the arrests will only intensify demands for political reform, though many activists will be forced into anonymity.

What could be the broader, international implications of the crackdown? Following the UAE’s role in Bahrain, questions should have already been asked by those world-leading institutions — many of which are based in democratic states — that cooperate closely with the current regime, in return for generous wealth transfers and other benefits. Perhaps now their question mark will be a bit bigger. The UAE’s rulers draw massive legitimacy from these external links, both in the international community and in the region. Leading institutions such as New York University and even the Sorbonne — with which bin Ghaith is affiliated — deal directly with the ruling elite and are establishing substantial campuses in Abu Dhabi. The Louvre, the Guggenheim, and other major museums and galleries committed to democratic principles and human rights are also setting up camp, despite boycotts having been staged by artists over workers’ conditions in the UAE.

From the UAE population’s perspective, more of a spotlight could also fall on the role of leading expatriates seen as inhibiting people’s freedom of speech and prospects of peaceful reform. Many of them are Westerners. Some help staff the UAE’s state-controlled media, while others hold key positions in the UAE’s security services, Interior Ministry, chief censorship bodies, and other repressive components of the state.

Overall, the UAE regime seems to be following Saudi Arabia’s direction on the Arab Spring. No protests or dissent of any kind will be tolerated, even if that means political prisoners have to be taken and the country’s international reputation damaged in the process. The arrests have broken several clauses in the UAE’s Constitution, notably Article 26, and have served to warn the entire national population that nobody is above reproach. The move is ill calculated and dangerous, and smacks of poor leadership, as any remaining space for communication and honest dialogue between the ruling elite and the population has now been closed off. As such, the UAE’s future political stability is now a little less certain than it was a week ago.

<p> Christopher M. Davidson is reader in government and international affairs at Durham University. He has authored several books on the Gulf states and has held academic posts in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book, After the Sheikhs. </p>