Crackdown on Islamists in the UAE

Jenifer Fenton writes in about the mass arrests of Islamists in the UAE, whose spiraling campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood regionally and domestic dissidents (Islamists from Islah and others, including non-Islamists) at home continues apace. One question I have about these arrests is, how do they play out in the inter-family politics of the Emirates? Notable in all this is the public absence of the Nahyan family, often thought to be the most anti-Islamist, and of course the most powerful in the UAE. The ruler of Sharjah, who might be thought to be in a position where he has to make more public concessions to Islamists (and social conservatives more generally) within his own emirate, has taken the lead in justifying the crackdown — albeit in that typically paternalistic/tribalist manner of the Gulf.

At least 50 people are now detained in the United Arab Emirates.  The arrests amount to one of the biggest crackdown on Islamists in years, after mounting nervousness by the authorities in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Many, but not all, of those held are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), which calls for reform but also for “adhering to Islamic principles”.  

Al-Islah was founded many years ago with the approval of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The stated purpose of the group was to be a religious and educational body. The government feels that it has moved away from these goals and has developed a political agenda.

On July 15, Salem Saeed Kubaish, the Abu Dhabi Attorney General, ordered the arrest of a group of people “for establishing and managing an organization with the aim of committing crimes that harm state security,” according to the state news agency WAM. The group is accused of  “opposing the constitution and the basic principles of the UAE ruling system, in addition to having links and affiliations to organizations with foreign agendas.”

Amnesty International has voiced their concerns that the detained men “are thought to be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.”

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Qatar: Where's the trust?

QATAR National Day

Jenifer Fenton sent in this dispatch from Doha, looking at the results of a recent survey and asking wider questions about the future of migration and expat communities in the Gulf.

Qataris have little trust in Western expatriates, was the headline many in Qatar took away from newly published research.

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing no trust and 10 complete trust, Qataris gave Western expatriates a 3.6, the lowest trust rating of any group excluding migrant laborers. Qataris trust other nationals (rating of 8); and Arab expatriates to a lesser degree (6.1), according to the report From Fareej To Metropolis.

“What Qataris have expressed is not different from what other people have expressed in other countries... We tend to trust and like people who are like us regardless of who we are,” said Darwish Al Emadi, Director of the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University which published the report. “British trust British people more than they trust non-British.”

However, white-collar respondents displayed high trust in Qataris (7.4). Migrant workers did as well.

Al Emadi’s research also found that "The more you interact with people, the more you trust them."

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Qatar’s Impromptu Alcohol Ban

The Pearl

Jenifer Fenton reports from Qatar.

There is no flambé at Les Deux Magots, a high-end French restaurant on The Pearl, a mixed development man-made island in Qatar, which hopes to “redefine an entire nation” according to its sales pitch.

The sale of alcohol (and use even for cooking) has been banned on The Pearl (where I live) since mid-December, but a month later businesses have still not received formal notification of the reason for the prohibition or when and if it would end, according to interviews with more than a dozen people affected at various establishments. Rumors about the reason for the ban after so many years of tolerance for alcohol sale and consumption in five-star hotels and facilities have spread, ranging from the Qatari leadership’s desire to project a more religious image (Qatar’s attempt to stress its Wahhabi heritage while differentiating it from Saudi Arabia has been the topic of State Dept. cables past) to concerns about upcoming elections and a financial dispute between the government and resort developers.

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Kuwaitis Denied Justice in Guantanamo Bay

Jenifer Fenton reports from Kuwait. This month marks the third year that President Barack Obama's campaign promise to "close Guantanamo" (modified soon after his inauguration to close the detention facility by January 2010) will have gone unfulfilled. A chronology of the Obama administration's postponment of the closure can be found at the LA Times.

The worst of the worst, they were called. Twelve Kuwaitis were “captured” in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Unproven accusations of associations with the Taliban and Al Qaeda robbed them of years of their lives. The 12 said they left Kuwait to do charity work or to teach Islam or to live more Islamic lives. Many were sold to the Americans for bounty and all said they were tortured by US forces.

Eventually 10 would be freed.

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No justice for the UAE five

Five activists charged with opposing the Emirati government, inciting demonstrations and insulting the country’s leadership have been sentenced to jail. The rulers of the United Arab Emirates have made it clear they do not welcome public challenges to their absolute authority to rule.

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist who faced more charges than the others, was sentenced to three years. Four others, including Nasser Bin Ghaith, an academic who has lectured at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, received two year prison terms. The trial was held in a state security court. The men cannot appeal, according to Mohammed Al Roken, one of the lawyers representing them.

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Qatar, the GCC, and the Arab Uprisings

The Arab League’s deadline for Syria to stop the “bloody repression” has passed, paving the way for stronger action after the League’s surprisingly hardline stance towards the Assad regime. Jenifer Fenton looks at what is motivating the GCC states, most notably the one taking the lead in the new regional diplomacy, Qatar. 

Qatar, with its progressive foreign policy, is publicly driving the Gulf’s response to Syria and carving out a role for itself as a country that can quickly adapt to the sweeping changes resulting from the Arab spring, but the regional weight it carries and its motives are more nuanced. 

The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council  - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - and the majority of Arab League member states agreed that there was a limit to the violence unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it could tolerate.  The United Nations puts the death toll since the unrest began at well over 3,500 people. Last week, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s participation and to impose political and economic sanctions against the Syrian government.  

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Living with the enemy in the Gaza Strip

Yousef Bashir, 22, lives with a bullet lodged near his spine.  “When I imagine myself without the bullet in my back I ask myself would I be the same?” he said. “That bullet talks to me and I talk to it everyday. It is a very personal thing that I go through,” he continued. “I know that it was put there to destroy my life. I look at it and I say I am not destroyed yet.”

Bashir has very personal ties to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He grew up in the Gaza Strip next to the Israeli settlement Kfar Darom, which was evacuated in 2005. The battle lines ran right through his house. When the second Palestinian Intifada broke out, Israeli soldiers moved into his home. Bashir was 11 years old at the time. His father, Khalil Bashir, refused to leave the house and so the family - Yousef Bashir, his grandmother, parents and his siblings - spent five years living with the soldiers, who occupied the top two floors.

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UAE: Electoral hangover

There was a dismal voter turnout in the United Arab Emirates for the Federal National Council elections, only 28 percent of the roughly 130,000 eligible voters cast a ballot. Before the polls closed, there was optimism that turnout would exceed expectation. The Dubai Media Office, which represents the government of Dubai, tweeted:

National Election Committee: The extension of voting period is due to the increasing turnout of voters at polling stations #UAE

Election Commission in Western Region: Huge turnout is clear & thanks for voters for their response & cooperation #UAE 

However, when the final turnout numbers were reported, it was clear the vast majority of eligible voters did not participate in the UAE’s democratic experiment. In 2006, when the electoral college was considerably smaller, 6,500 people, turnout was 74 percent.

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Bahraini justice on trial

Last week was a bad week to be on trial in Bahrain. 

On September 29, a military court — or what Bahrain calls the National Safety Court — sentenced 20 medical professionals from five to 15 years in jail on charges that included inciting to overthrow the regime, possession of weapons, and forcefully taking over control of the main medical complex, Salmaniya Hospital. 

The medics all say they are innocent and the international community has not found fault with them, but they have found fault with Bahrain’s courts.  

“These are medical professionals who were treating patients during a period of civil unrest, as their ethical duty requires them to do. To imprison them as part of a political struggle is unconscionable,” said Physicians for Human Right’s Chief Policy Officer, Hans Hogrefe, in a press statement.  

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Elections in the Gulf 2/2: UAE

Two elections are taking place in the Gulf — in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates — on Saturday. The political environments could not be more different, but the results of both elections are not expected to change much. Yesterday, we looked at Bahrain. Today, we focus on the UAE.

In the UAE there is no opposition and the candidates — 468 of them — are running for a body that has no legislative power. So what are people focused on? Turnout.

In the run up to the Federal National Council election the state run news agency WAM carried statements stressing the importance of voters exercising their right at the ballots. UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan called for broad and active participation in the elections. Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum echoed the call a day later.

Even more clearly, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, state minister for FNC, said:

There is no historic cumulative for the electoral process in the UAE to assess a number of voters who will turn up, but the measure of success will be the percentage of participation.

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Elections in the Gulf 1/2: Bahrain

Two elections are taking place in the Gulf — in Bahrain and in the United Arab Emirates — on Saturday. The political environments could not be more different, but the results of both elections are not expected to change much. First, let's look at the dynamics in Bahrain.

In Bahrain the election was called to replace the 18 seats formerly held by the main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, which resigned earlier this year protesting the government’s crackdown. Al Wefaq and five other opposition groups are boycotting the vote. Several candidates have already won unopposed. Al Wefaq said it was powerless against the government and since the group has walked out of parliament, the government has not conceded anything, they say. How could they return under such conditions?

“We were not able to help the people when the crackdown started,” according to Matar Ebrahim Matar, a former Al Wefaq MP, who himself was arrested, held and beaten in detention — an accusation the government denies. “The government doesn’t listen to anybody so even if we are inside (the parliament), the government are ignoring all those who are speaking about violations, people who are fired from their jobs, tortured inside the jail and the patients who cannot reach medical services,” he said. “The denial will not stop the issues.”

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Elections in the UAE: the lucky 129,274

This guest post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

Some 469 people, including 85 women, will run for a seat on the United Arab Emirates’s Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body, scheduled on September 24. Any Emirati national selected by the rulers of the Emirates to be part of the electoral college was eligible to register as a FNC candidate provided they are at least 25, in good standing with the law, and literate. Half the seats are up for election, the other half are appointed by the leadership of the UAE.  

In short, “chosen” Emiratis will soon be voting for half the members of a government body that has no legislative power.  What do you call that — cosmetic democracy or progressive empowerment?  

“This is a very sorry situation because on the one hand we want people to be encouraged to run for the FNC elections so they can have an opinion and share in the building of the nation,” Abdul Hamid Ahmad, the editor-in-chief of Gulf News, wrote recently in an editorial for the paper.  “While on the other hand, because of the limited role of the FNC, we take away from them one of the main tools for candidacy. The manifesto has no meaning.”   

In late September, 129,274 people — a number that falls far short of universal suffrage — will be allowed to vote in the FNC elections. The number is a significant increase from the last and only other elections of 2006, when 6,600 or so Emiratis were eligible.   The increase in the number of members shows the UAE is “committed to strengthening political participation and developing it in tune with the local culture”,  Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said.   

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The United (but not Equal) Arab Emirates

The following post — a backgrounder on the economic structure and inequalities of the UAE — was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

When six emirates proclaimed themselves a unified country in 1971, Ras Al Khaimah was not among them.  For Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the ruler of the emirate at the time, there was one remaining stumbling block: an imbalance of power that tilted strongly toward the economically dominant emirates. Today, that imbalance remains.

While Abu Dhabi is awash with cranes working around the clock to raise a post modern city from the sand, and the skyline of Dubai is exploding with glass towers, in the northern emirates what one sees is a  developing-world landscape.  In Ras Al Khaimah, many of the residential streets are lined with single-story homes with unsightly exterior air conditioning units, peeling paint and tin-roofed garages.  From the highways of Sharjah, drab concrete apartment blocks appear the norm rather than the exception.

Here “there is no oil,” Yousef Al Antali, a resident of Fujairah said.  “We live a simple life.” But growing slower is better, his friend Abdullah Al Khadddeim said. Maybe in “two to three years we will be the same as Abu Dhabi.”

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The state of Bahrain's national dialogue: all talk?

The following is a guest post by Jenifer Fenton.

Bahrain’s main opposition group took to the streets on Friday demanding a credible dialogue with the King.  

“We will continue to rally,” said Khalil Al Marzooq, a senior member of  Al Wefaq.  It was their seventh - and likely not their last - Friday gathering.  The group walked out of the Kingdom’s National Dialogue on July 19.  “General efforts to make it credible were rejected and ignored,” Al Marzooq said. 

More than 300 people in Bahrain began “talking” in July in line with a directive from the king following widespread unrest that shook the island nation earlier this year. Five people from each political society were invited, as were select NGOs, members of the business community, some unionists and 70 or so public figures. 

The talks were biased from the onset, Marzooq said. Opposition and those critical of the government only made up between 10 and 15 percent of those participating in the talks.  In Bahrain, a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, who feel disenfranchised. 

The country remains in a tenuous status quo.  

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UAE Activists on trial

The piece below has been contributed by Jenifer Fenton, a freelance journalist based in the UAE, formerly with CNN.

Five activists charged with opposing the government and insulting the country’s leadership returned to court on Monday in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, and four others - who face up to five years in prison if convicted - have pleaded not guilty.

Behind closed doors in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court the prosecution called two more witnesses who testified about the activists’ internet articles and blogs. There was a gathering of about 50 pro-government demonstrators outside the courthouse who protesting against the five: Emiratis Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk and Hassan Ali Al Khamis; and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who does not carry identification papers.

Earlier this year, Mansoor was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates asking for the country to have direct elections.  The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers; the body is only an advisory one.

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