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UAE's assertive stance will not result in greater stability and prosperity

Watching political opportunism at its crudest is an ugly thing. The most audacious attempts usually generate sarcastic laughter just as easily as disbelief and anger. What is interesting about its most naked form in the latest example is the way that it unites countries and regimes that only recently failed to see eye to eye.

Take the current escalation of violence in Jerusalem; the killing of five Israelis in a synagogue, which Netanyahu has exploited in order to tighten the occupation while imposing collective punishment by demolishing the homes of those suspected of the killing, and the UAE's designation of 83 groups as "terrorist organisations". Both use the deplorable acts of ISIS to justify greater repression while attempting simultaneously to deflect attention from their own failings.

"The streets of the West Bank are run by ISIS" and those carrying out the violence are "from the same family as ISIS" we have been told by Mark Regev. The Israeli prime minister's Australian-born spokesman's comments are another example of the invidious attempt by Israel to shoehorn legitimate Palestinian resistance into the universally-denounced ISIS/terrorist camp and, at the same time, disconnect Israel, with its decades of brutal occupation, death and destruction, racism, systematic abuse and daily humiliation of Palestinians, from the violence.

It's becoming increasingly harder to argue against the point that ISIS presents a great opportunity for many countries in the region to justify repressive measures. In fact, though, the underlying reason for instability in the region is because these regimes are fated to the iron law of oligarchy, recycling one form of tyranny after another.

The symbiotic relationship that exists between ISIS and the more assertive posture of regimes in the Middle East isn't totally lost. Both are only able to advance their cause by pointing at the failures of the Arab Spring. To them there is no middle ground: on the one hand, striving for political reform peacefully through the existing system is tantamount to disbelief — kufr — which "justifies" murder; on the other it is an act of terrorism that puts you in the same league as ISIS.

Extremism can only feed off extremism. The danger, if this cycle continues, is that the entire region will come to be defined by its extremes, if it isn't already.

Since the peoples' uprisings in 2011, only a handful of countries have taken the wind out of anti-government protest successfully through peaceful means. Tunisia and Morocco have been more inclusive, including cooperation with Islamists, rather than excluding them completely; that is the exact opposite of policies advocated by the UAE.

It is not surprising that regimes that have been most reluctant to make concessions in power-sharing are likewise equally united in exploiting the opportunity presented by ISIS. They are also the countries prepared to set new standards in how far they are willing to go to undermine any opposition, peaceful or otherwise, to cement their weakening grip on power.

As argued previously, the battle against ISIS cannot be won by demonising the Muslim Brotherhood and shooting indiscriminately in the dark. The groups listed by the UAE as "terrorists" include those actually engaged in violence like Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front and Boko Haram, as well as organisations that have no history of violence or terrorism. These include the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the International Union of Muslims Scholars, the London-based Cordoba Foundation and the charity Islamic Relief.

It is one of the grossest applications of the "terrorism" label ever seen; in casting the net so widely the term has been robbed of all meaning. If anything, it has trivialised real terrorism, which is a scourge and a threat that needs to be confronted rationally and not a label to be exploited for cheap political gains. The UAE list is "farcical," claimed the Cordoba Foundation. "To group [the foundation] and others in the same list as extremist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIS is shameful, and cannot be justified; it is simply another example of a despotic regime seeking to silence any form of dissent."

This is just one of the UAE's many miscalculations about the serious challenges facing the Middle East and the Emirates itself. It is the reaction of a country uneasy with itself, one that is feeling under siege and becoming increasingly insular in politics. The UAE's position during a spat with Qatar, which it has accused of interfering in the domestic affairs of other states, is another example of its growing assertiveness that will expose the country to vulnerability in the future. The spat was sufficiently hostile for the Emirates to withdraw its ambassador from Qatar and make an attempt to scuttle Qatari-Saudi reconciliation.

Observing the different positions adopted by countries in the region towards groups calling for greater power-sharing and inclusivity, it's curious that the UAE should be taking such a uniquely assertive stance. Qatar, a country that is not too dissimilar in its economy and political make-up has continued to stress that its position towards the Arab Spring stems from support for the Arab peoples' call for freedom and democracy and not on any automatic support for a party or organisation.

These tensions highlight a fundamental question about the political organisation of the Middle East, with countries that were either carved out arbitrarily to serve Western interests or have pliant tribal leaders who now run their states like private corporations. Both will continue to face challenges to their legitimacy until they find a way to adapt to the changing context in which they find themselves.

If the challenge for political Islam, which is unlikely to be a spent force, is to chart a peaceful and democratic role for Islam in the governance of Muslim majority countries, the challenge for regimes in such states is, surely, to create the political space through which this can happen. Nations can only be greater than the sum of its parts if those parts are united harmoniously. It does not have to be a zero sum game; it's an opportunity for regimes to gain greater legitimacy, cement their authority and create a stable base for future sustainability.

It is hard to overestimate the UAE's short-sightedness. It has gone to great lengths and demonstrated ruthlessness and moments of extreme duplicity in pursuing its goals. A congressional report which informs legislative debate in the US congress, published in 2014, states that the UAE has become increasingly assertive against extremist Islamic organisations, even to the point of undertaking some military action in post-Gaddafi Libya; this follows the combat missions flown by UAE pilots against the late-Libyan leader.

The UAE has backed moderate Islamist rebel forces in Syria financially and is giving similar assistance to the military-led government of Egypt that in July 2013 ousted the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. In addition, the Emirates government has worked to undermine other Muslim Brotherhood-related organisations in the region, including the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

It may be unfair to single out the UAE for the above, but what is unique about its stance is the extent of its overreach as a state willing to subvert regimes and criminalise law-abiding organisations in Britain and America, despite the fact that it is a favoured state with the British government. "There is no relationship the UK has with countries in the Middle East that is more important to us than that with the United Arab Emirates," Britain's ambassador to the Emirates has said.

Why has the UAE adopted this extremely assertive position? Is this, paradoxically, a sign of its diminishing power, which in political terms has a tendency to give rise to a bunker mentality? A tentative answer can be formed by examining its rise as an economic force and its political make-up.

A good explanation for the success of the UAE — economically, at least — has been its historical neutrality, peace-keeping and mediation role. Mixed with development assistance and international charity, the Emirates has created a global brand envied by most in the region. Although much government spending goes on what can rightly be called vanity projects and an extension of soft power, the UAE sets aside 3.6 per cent of its GDP for humanitarian aid projects. Around $70 million has been spent rebuilding Palestinian refugee camps and millions more have been allocated for projects in Iraq and Africa.

Neutrality in conflict and joining peace-keeping forces in Lebanon, Somalia and Rwanda, to name but a few, have also boosted the UAE's conciliatory image. More controversially, the UAE was the only Arab army to join the US war against the Taliban; it was a Muslim presence that, at least on the ground, pacified many Afghans.

Historically, the UAE succeeded in establishing itself as a regional peace-broker by making a number of interventions in the Middle East. It solved a territorial dispute between Egypt and Libya, for example, and also attempted so save Iraq from full-scale invasion by forging an agreement between Saddam Hussain and the ruler of Kuwait.

In many ways the UAE's rise as a ubiquitous global brand is quite phenomenal. Until now it has not witnessed major political challenges. It has avoided internal tension as a classic rentier state, able to buy political acquiescence through very generous welfare programmes. Jobs are subsidised for UAE nationals that are acceptable to their citizens, while foreign labour makes up no less than 90 per cent of the country's 5.47 million population.

Economic prosperity, however, is unlikely to guarantee long-term political stability. The coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies may not be an impending fate for the country but there are many structural flaws which, if they are not reconciled, will handicap severely the progress it has made over the past few decades.

Until now, the UAE has cushioned itself successfully from the friction resulting from the gap between economic prosperity and political inclusivity. The classical theory of modernisation, which is true in most cases, predicts that countries with a rapid economic development will experience a move towards democratic institutions and political representation. The few aberrations in this theory, which include the UAE, cannot claim the longevity of countries in Europe and the US that have married the two successfully and endured for centuries.

The rise and fall of nations, though not an exact science, can nevertheless be attributed to certain core principals at the heart of which are political and economic inclusivity. Professors Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson have dared to ask the age-old question as to why some countries prosper and some don't, and developed a framework for understanding in their book, Why Nations Fail.

A key argument applicable in the case of the UAE is the premise that economic prosperity alone, without inclusive political institutions, is insufficient for maintaining the long-term viability and prosperity of a country. Successful states are only successful because they create a virtuous cycle of centralised authority, combined with political and economic inclusivity. Failing countries result from the vicious cycle of a strong or weak central authority combined with exclusive political institutions and exclusive economic institutions.

Thus far the UAE has failed to create the virtuous cycle necessary for its long-term success, one that balances power, political legitimacy and good economic policy. On the contrary, it is being dragged into a vicious cycle, which in the case of the UAE looks like an overreaching state, with weakening political legitimacy and growing challenges to its economic prosperity. The framework for Why Nations Fails suggests that the kind of growth experienced by the UAE will ultimately become unsustainable unless the political institutions become more inclusive.

The urge to hold on to power no matter what the consequence may well be a universal phenomenon and the cause of untold misery. It is, nevertheless, always better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell. This is something to which the government of the UAE should give serious thought.

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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