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'Terrorist' list destroys integrity of UAE

The first thing that catches the eye about the newly-released United Arab Emirates list of 83 "terrorist organisations" is its broad sweep. It contains Islamic institutions from across Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Asia. Although patently absurd, the list does possibly have the unintended effect of reinforcing the common myth that all terrorists are Muslims. Not a single Jewish organisation was mentioned, despite the violent campaigns waged by some of the Israeli settlers' groups against the Palestinian inhabitants of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and daily assaults on the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

On one level, the UAE list speaks volumes about those who have compiled it. It tells the story of a country that feels, at best, terribly insecure and, at worst, at peace with neither itself nor its neighbours. Moreover, it suggests a state that is lacking in confidence so much that it sees the modern equivalent of reds under every bed.

In the absence of any tangible and verifiable evidence of a terrorist threat to the UAE, the list appears to reflect a fear of change on the one hand and fixation with its Gulf neighbour, Qatar, on the other. Whereas the latter has openly supported the popular uprisings for democratic change across the region, the UAE adopted the exact opposite stance. It chose, for example, to offer sanctuary to remnants of the Mubarak regime.

In the circumstances, it was only a matter of time before the rulers of the UAE, like their Egyptian clients, launched an all-out attack on the Muslim Brotherhood and groups associated with it. So while the list of 83 groups includes the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaida, the real target is undoubtedly the Islamic movement.

Earlier this year when Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review of the Brotherhood's activities it was believed widely that this was undertaken in response to pressure from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In August, the Financial Times reported that the review had concluded that "the group should not be labelled a terrorist organisation and in fact […] found little evidence its members are involved in terrorist activities." One government source told the newspaper that "Sir John [Jenkins, Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia] will say that the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation. The Saudis and Emiratis will then be very upset with us."

Since then, there has been a flow of media "leaks", notably to the Daily Telegraph, which asserted that the government was about to enforce measures against 60 British organisations with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Lawyers acting on behalf of the movement had no doubts that the leaks were all ordered to put pressure on the government to alter the report with a demand that the Jenkins Report be published in full and in its original form. It is in this context that the UAE list appears to be part of a carefully-choreographed attempt to twist the British government's arm.

At this point, the old saying, "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones" looks to be very relevant. While the UAE has compiled its colourful list of "terrorist organisations" it has some explaining to do about its own distinctly murky affairs in Libya, Tunisia and even Oman, a fellow GCC member.

In January 2011 security officials in the sultanate told the Oman News Agency that the authorities had arrested spies "belonging to the state security forces of the UAE targeting the regime in Oman and the mechanism of governmental and military work." In August, The New York Times cited four senior American officials who reported that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates had launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied targets in Libya.

Still more recently Al-Jazeera broadcast a documentary on the assassination of Chokri Belaïd, the Tunisian politician. The programme highlighted a telephone conversation with Belaid's driver moments before he was shot. The call originated in the UAE. Many Tunisians now believe that the politician was murdered to provoke anger and opposition to the then ruling Ennahdah Party; public anger and political opposition were duly provoked.

In the chaotic world of the Middle East it is very easy to play the terrorism card. Leaders, past and present, use it instinctively to silence dissident voices and discredit political opponents. At other times, it is used to cover up internal failures and win western support. As such, it is losing its ability to shock; "terrorist" doesn't really mean anything when it is bandied about so liberally with neither rhyme nor reason.

Indeed, so far, the UAE list seems to have failed to impress even the American and British governments. Both have requested explanations as to why respected civil society groups in their countries have been designated as "terrorist organisations".

It takes no great skill or intelligence to compile a list of alleged terrorists when no evidence has to be produced to justify it. A much more difficult task is to prove that those named on the list have been involved in terrorism or pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the UAE.

If anything, the government in the UAE is looking in the wrong place for such a threat to its sovereignty. According to the Emiratis, the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb have been "occupied" by Iran since the early seventies; shouldn't the Gulf state be focusing on discussions with Tehran rather than seeking to discredit popular civil society groups? In behaving like a playground bully, the UAE has destroyed whatever integrity it may once have had.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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