The Arab Spring appeared at first like a political contagion spreading throughout the Arab world. A fault-line between vibrant generations of youth and ossified ruling elites, as a result of underlying socio-economic discontent and pent-up feelings of deep political frustration, signalled dramatic change for the region.
From the very onset, one of the many absorbing questions was how Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would respond to the growing tide of popular uprising: will they reform or will they close in to protect their privileged position?
Even in the early months, it became obvious as to how the revolutionary bug would be treated considering the history and makeup of the country: one that was extremely wealthy, with a small population, whose survival rested on the bargains made by a rentier state; principally that the government ensures the financial well-being of the people, and the people do not rebel or try to influence the political decisions of the state.
What happens if the people do want a change? What if a growing class of educated people, for a variety of reasons, are no longer satisfied with that bargain?
These are depressing questions for the UAE that underline the challenges it is facing now and the threats it will face to its long term sustainability. There are mounting internal and external pressures, not least created by its growing population: falling oil reserves, inability to maintain funding financial privileges of its citizens and of course the growing demands of a youth population; inspired by hopes and aspirations which money alone cannot buy, notably genuine political enfranchisement.
In this first in a series of articles, these challenges will be explored beginning with the UAE's response to calls for greater democratisation in the country.
Exploiting failure to cover genuine problems
For a number of obvious reasons, not least the civil war in Syria, forces unleased during the Arab Spring became a cause of great concern due to the instability, violence and chaos cast over the region. Hastily written commentaries quickly moved to explain an early death of the Arab Spring from its previous transformative significance for the region.
The Arab Spring going awry had a redeeming effect; regimes were able to roll back popular uprising and overcome their legitimacy crises by pointing to decades of stability they were able to bring to the region without which, they claimed, the Middle East would descend into total chaos. The UAE along with other countries in the region looked as though they had successfully inoculated themselves from the revolutionary bug.
The sterile image constructed by these regimes however does not mean they were closeted away from the tectonic shifts sweeping through the region. The absence of mass street protests in the UAE and open challenges to the ruling class only served to reinforce key characteristics of a rentier state desperate not to concede any political power through purchasing political acquiescence and suppressing its citizens.
While the UAE did not hesitate to increase salaries in order to divert the threat of social unrest, including embarking on a massive spending splurge in the wake of the Arab Spring, it was also determined to take whatever action was necessary to monitor the population's mood, such as publicly taking charge of the Internet surveillance system, clamping down on free speech and the media. Those whose loyalty can no longer be bought – a fact which the UAE and other Gulf countries will increasingly face, due to a number of internal and external socioeconomic and political factors, face detention, imprisonment, denationalisation and even torture.
The plight of 94 UAE nationals epitomised all these concerns. They were arrested as part of a government clampdown which began on March 2011 when a petition was sent to the president and the sheikhs of the emirates calling for reform. It called for an elected National Council and parliament with full executive powers. There is a National Council but all of its members are appointed by the rulers of the emirates.
Coming at a time when the Middle East was convulsing with popular uprising, the petition was met with deep anxiety. The UAE authorities responded by dissolving civil society institutions, including the Teachers and Jurists Association and the most well-known and long established Al–Islah Movement, an indigenous organisation that has been calling for reform in the country for many decades.
Judging by the kind of people who singed this petition, the problems facing the UAE is far greater than it would care to admit. The accused come from all walks of Emirati life. The leader of the alleged plot, Sheikh Sultan Bin Kayed Al-Qassimi, is the cousin of the ruler and a member of one of the UAE's seven ruling families. There are three judges, two human rights defenders, lawyers, teachers, academics as well as students. With such a spread from UAE society, evading their demands through violence and accusations of a "foreign plot" undermined their sincerity. Nonetheless, the fact that the UAE's authorities obligingly resorted to violent suppression against notable members of its own society, underlined the deeper anxieties in the country and the authority's failing attempts to address them properly.
Many activists from Al-Islah Association were arrested during raids on their homes and places of work. Some were abducted from streets without judicial oversight. The number of those arrested is estimated to be around 94, including 13 women. Initially no one knew where the detainees were being held, as they were not allowed to seek legal representation or meet family members. State-owned media and influential figures in government launched a fierce campaign against the detainees without giving them any opportunity to defend themselves.
A November 2011 report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that their imprisonment was arbitrary and that the UAE government should release them and pay damages. In 2012, Human Rights Watch said: "The United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to crack down on freedom of expression and association. The authorities are arbitrarily detaining scores of individuals they suspect of links to domestic and international Islamist groups."
In July 2014, Amnesty International declared that the only reason these individuals are behind bars is because they dared to call for peaceful democratic reforms, which seems off-limits in the UAE. They are prisoners of conscience and they must be released immediately and unconditionally.
One of many accusations levelled against the UAE, since 2011, is its practice of enforced disappearance: the practice where a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law. As a number of organisations, including Human Rights Watch have highlighted, the allegations of enforced disappearance and torture in the UAE are of grave concern.
The Arab Organisation of Human Rights (AOHR) has obtained testimonies from many defendants, for its report on Forced Disappearance and Torture in the UAE, who claimed that they had been tortured and abused in detention centres. The report included 16 different methods of torture including severe beatings, threats with electrocution and denying access to medical care.
In addition to revoking citizenship and, in some cases, stripping them of their residency papers and deporting them to Thailand, repressive measures were also used against non-Emiratis in making credible its claim that there is an "international plot" in which UAE citizens and foreigners were working together to destabilise the country.
On September 20, 2012, Reuters quoted UAE media outlets as claiming that detained Islamists have confessed to establishing a secret organisation with a military wing to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state, an accusation which in the current political context permitted the use of any measure – legal or otherwise – in quashing legitimate political demands.
Lawyers from Kuwait and Qatar travelling to the UAE to defend clients were denied entry. Foreign nationals, citizens of neighbouring countries which experienced a dramatic overthrow of their regime, were also arrested even if they were only in the Emirates for a few hours on transit. These actions reflected an alarming level of hostility against pro-democracy activists and the level of fear and panic that gripped the authorities.
Foreign nationals were also subjected to a campaign of deportations. AOHR documented cases of Egyptians and other foreign nationals who had spent years working in the UAE and were then given only a few days to leave the country. More than 14 Egyptian were arrested, some that had been working in the UAE for two decades.
According to Amnesty International, foreign nationals subjected to enforced disappearance also include Qataris: Yousif Abdulsamad Abdughani Ali Al-Mullah and Hamad Ali Mohammed Al-Hamadi. Amnesty claimed that the UAE has subjected them to enforced disappearance, since they have withheld information about the men's fate from their families. Both men are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. The UN Commission on Human Rights has stated that "prolonged incommunicado detention may facilitate the perpetration of torture and can in itself constitute a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" or even torture.
Due to Qatar's support for the Arab Spring and the peaceful political change in the region, the UAE adopted a very hostile position towards them to the extent of suspending diplomatic ties between the two countries. Several innocent Qataris found themselves paying a high price for their country's political stand.
Amongst those detained, imprisoned and expelled is Iyad El-Baghdadi, a popular blogger and Twitter personality who first came to prominence during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. He was arrested by UAE authorities, detained, imprisoned and then expelled from the country. He has been living in limbo in Malaysia ever since. Despite his lifetime residence in the UAE, as a Palestinian citizen, El-Baghdadi had no recourse to contest this order. He could not be deported back to Palestine, so he was given a choice: indefinite detention or deportation to Malaysia. He chose Malaysia.
The UAE has denied its citizens rights such as freedom of expression, peaceful protests and peaceful assembly. They have persisted in persecuting and repressing any form of political opposition. It has never taken any serious steps towards supporting citizen participation in democratic life and advancing civil society institutions and, as they have shown over the past three years, their readiness to undermine these efforts through unlawful means is concerning.
When the UAE was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council it promised to uphold the highest standards in promoting and protecting human rights. But the authorities' handling of these cases raises troubling questions about the UAE's commitment to holding fair trials and respecting other fundamental human rights standards.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.