The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged jeniferfenton
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.” 

Nearly four decades ago, the poorer emirates — Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman — lost much of their autonomy in return for the financial and political stability that joining Abu Dhabi and to a lesser degree Dubai could give them. Ras Al Khaimah, given assurances that it would play a part at “the heart of the federation,”  followed suit a few months later.

In the emirates, where millions of unskilled expatriate laborers earn a meager salary, poor is a relative term. But compared to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the north of the UAE is very poor.  The wealth gap has always been there but as Abu Dhabi and Dubai have grown significantly in the last 10 to 15 years, the gap has been magnified. 

The Arab spring that is sweeping through the region has called attention to this disparity once again.

“Some of the northern emirates have been left behind,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. “I think the UAE has its weak points…some (emirates) are weaker socially, economically and developmentally,” Abdullah said. The emirates are not homogenous and the leadership of all of the emirates must address employment equality, he added.

According to figures from the UAE National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the national unemployment rate for Emiratis in 2009, the most recent statistics available, was 14 percent. In Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah the number jumps to 20.6 percent and 16.2 percent respectively.  But Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, with small economies, fare far better than the national average.

Employment statistics alone though do not give a full picture.  The available facilities in each of the emirates vary greatly, due in large part to differences in population, area and resources. The Emirati population and land mass of the five smaller emirates combined do not equal the number of citizens or size of Abu Dhabi. Ajman has just 42,000 citizens. Umm Al Quwain has 17,400 citizens, according to the UAE NBS. In these emirates, it would not be possible for nationals to have the same standard of living as Abu Dhabi or Dubai, so some people migrate south. (More than eight million people live in the emirates, but the majority of people in the UAE are migrant workers — only roughly one million are Emirati.)

Abu Dhabi has more than the lion’s share of the country’s oil — 92 billion barrels accounting for eight percent of OPEC’s production in 2009, according to government figures.  While the emirate’s gas reserves were estimated to be 212 trillion cubic feet.

The five “poorer” emirates depend on the federal government, financed primarily by Abu Dhabi, to bankroll them. These emirates have benefited greatly for the last 40 years from this relationship. Subsidies — food, electricity, petrol, etc. — are not federal, but local according to the constitution. But this is where it gets a bit complicated. Abu Dhabi supports about 90 percent of the funds provided to the federal government. The federal government provides for water and electricity in Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain - but not the other emirates. The federal government takes care of education in all emirates, but Abu Dhabi. Residential land plots are the responsibility of individual emirates, but Abu Dhabi and Dubai help out here again with direct grants.

The UAE is a federation of seven different autonomous economies, that is a “constitutional fact of life,” Abdullah said. Recently Abu Dhabi, perhaps rightly so to catch up with Dubai and Qatar, has focused much of its own efforts on developing its own emirate, giving second consideration to the other emirates, he said. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are growing on a global scale, but some of this growth has trickled down and helped the other emirates.  

The UAE is also refocusing — or continuing to focus — its attention on the north. “Historically there has been discontent in the northern emirates toward the federal government,” according to Theodore Karasik, a security analyst with INEGMA. The northern emirates’ alliance is important for the stability of the UAE given the borders of the Emirates and past associations with so-called “foreign influences,” including Saudi, Iranian and even Omani. But, to suggest there is any serious overt Iranian political influence in the north today would be overblown, Karasik added.

Economic disparities can contribute to dangerous discontent, but the UAE has not experienced anything remotely close to feelings of injustice seen elsewhere in the region.  However, “we are seeing proactive activity by the UAE federal government and Dubai to address economic imbalances,” Karasik said.  While the investment in the north may be a continuation of previous policies, the UAE is announcing recent upgrades in “a very public way…to show signs of good will,” Karasik added. They are sending a signal that the UAE is united.

This year, UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan ordered a US$1.55 billion investment to expand the water and electricity supply in the northern emirates. A 100 kilometer pipeline is planned to supply Fujairah and its environs. The UAE also plans to build an oil refinery there. Another 60 kilometer pipeline will deliver water to Umm Al Quwain. Sharjah, which has suffered from power cuts, will get a new main transmission station. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company is also expanding its services in Sharjah to ease petrol shortages after dozens of Dubai owned Emirates National Oil Company group’s stations halted operations.

The International Monetary Fund applauded these actions. “The authorities’ plan to upgrade the infrastructure in the northern emirates is a step towards more inclusive economic development and should be expanded.”

Housing loans now totaling in the billions have been approved for thousands of Emiratis. In a number of emirates, including Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, President Khalifa approved immediate restorations and replacement “of dilapidated houses owned by citizens …to ensure raising of their living standards,” according to the state run news agency WAM.

But all of this spending is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions Abu Dhabi is spending to develop its own projects: Yas Island, which features a Formula 1 track and a Ferrari theme park; Saadiyat Island, the future home of the Louvre and Guggenheim; Masdar City, a carbon-neutral development; Reem Island, what will be the central business district; and many more projects.

Dubai recently upgraded its infrastructure with a $7.62 billion dollar metro. It too is focused on its own emirate and addressing what the IMF estimates to be $31 billion of debt due in 2011-2012.  

It is federal policy that all Emiratis requiring benefits, regardless of their emirate, should receive the same help. All Emiratis are equal (with the exception of families in which the father is a foreign national, something the UAE said is being addressed.) But what is law, what is reality and what is perception does vary to a degree across the UAE due to the size of the local governments, their autonomy, their complexities and relationships with each other and with the federal government.  

But this interlocking also lends to the government’s stability, Karasik said. “The (UAE) federation is an excellent model based on tribes and traditions of this country and the people that live here.” It is a model with many voices.

As Nasser Al Shaikh, a prominent Emirati, recently tweeted “As long as there are 7 emirates, 7 royal families, 7 local Govt, we’ll have 7+1 different ways of doing things.”

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.  

After Al Wefaq withdrew from the talks, Isa Abdul Rahman, spokesperson for the dialogue, said “regardless of any participant’s decision to leave, the dialogue will continue. This is a time to be engaged, open, creative and to demonstrate willingness to take bold decisions.” 

Al Wefaq wants fully elected government representation, according to Marzooq. The group, which said it won 64 percent of the vote in Bahrain’s last election, also wants the country to have an independent judiciary and thinks all Bahrainis should be able to serve in the country’s security services.

Bahrain News Agency put out near-daily press releases of what the dialogue, which ended July 25, had accomplished. I asked a prominent opposition figure, who did not take part in the talks and who cannot be named for security reasons, for his take on some of the government’s statements. 

Bahrain News Agency: “The National Dialogue completed its political discussions with consensus to further enhance the powers of the elected parliament.”   

Opposition member: All changes discussed by the government “will not tip the balance towards a fairly elected parliament.”

BNA:  “Discussions on electoral constituencies sparked a heated debate, but participants agreed on the need for a fairer system.”  

Opposition member: “Nothing is being tabled for changing the unfair constituencies.”

BNA:  “Delegates...agreed on the need to improve social justice...They called for an in-depth study to identify low-income target groups and improve the redistribution of government support.” 

Opposition member: “This is all part of political talk does not really change anything in reality.” 

BNA: “Delegates agreed to establish an authority for national reconciliation.” 

Opposition member: “This would be a good step. But from previous experience we could end up with a government body that (produces) slogans.”

BNA: “Participants also agreed that undermining religions and sects should be illegal.” 

Opposition member: “Again, there is no substance to this proposal.”

Dialogue has to come from both sides: from the government and from the opposition, said Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Gulf Research Center, an independent think tank.  “It is a waiting game,” Sager said. “The status quo position... we don’t know where that will lead.”  The wider the gap between the peoples’ demands and the government’s ability to deliver, the more difficulty the country is going to be in, he said. 

“I think from the beginning people had doubts that the talks would go anywhere,” said Faraz Sanei, from Human Rights Watch, who was in the country during the unrest earlier this year. Currently, the organization is not allowed in Bahrain. Sanei did point to some improvements, including the king’s decree in late June transferring court cases that have not been heard from the special military court to civilian courts. Verdicts from the military court can also be appealed to the civilian courts.  According to multiple figures from human rights groups and opposition members, some 300 cases have come before the courts.  Seven hundred were expected to be transferred to the civilian courts. 

Many people in detention have also been released, Sanei said. Since March 15, when the king declared a state of emergency, between 1,200 and 1,300 people were detained, according to multiple sources. Bahrain has a population of just more than 1.2 million people. As of Sunday, there are about 300 still in custody. (Authorities in Bahrain did not respond in time for publication to a query asking for the government’s statistics.) 

There are other numbers that speak to the degree of the unrest. Thirty three people have died. Some under questionable circumstances.  Previously, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority had said that some members of the Bahrain security forces were under investigation for actions related to the unrest, but provided no further details.  

Between 2,500 and 3,000 have been fired from their jobs. The government has said that hundreds were reinstated. But trade unions and human rights groups think the government’s figures are exaggerated. At least three doctors were fired from their jobs last week, opposition sources said.   

Places of worship have been ruined. Bahrain’s government has previously denied these claims, saying only that it removed illegal makeshift construction. Two Shiite cemeteries were desecrated.  

Is it possible to reverse the effects of the unrest and go back to the way things used to be?

An independent international panel, set up by the king, is tasked with investigating the events that unfolded in Bahrain. The five-member commission, whose head is Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, will report back to the king, who will “take the necessary action.” 

Bassiouni was asked if he can guarantee the safety of the witnesses who meet with and give testimony to his team. Bassiouni said he could not. A Bahraini, who wishes not to be named for security reasons, who met with the commission to discuss a personal case, said via email: “I think people can't feel safe to talk while people are in jail and tried in court and fired from jobs just because they expressed their opinion.” The person was also asked to attend a general meeting where they could further discuss the case. “I told them (the commission) that talking in a general meeting in front of others might subject our safety to danger. But they provided no solution.”

Al Wefaq also met with the commission. They too have concerns about what happens after the commission releases its report in October. Who will implement the recommendations, who will protect witnesses and employees who pointed the finger at their bosses, Marzooq asked. Who can the Bahraini people turn to for help, he said. “You cannot go to the police, court, you cannot go to the media, the hospital, you will be fired from the job,”  The whole state is your enemy, he said. People need and want to have representation in the government, if they did, the same thing that happened this year could not happen again. “We cannot continue with the same structure.”