The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged uae
Qatar and Egypt still at odds despite GCC reconciliation

David Kirkpatrick reports in the NYT:

CAIRO — Shaking hands and kissing foreheads, the monarchs of the Persian Gulf came together this month to declare that they had resolved an 18-month feud in order to unite against their twin enemies, Iran and the Islamic State.

But the split is still festering, most visibly here in the place where it broke out over the military ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president. “Nothing has changed — nothing, nothing,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential diplomacy.

. . . 

But government officials on both sides of the gulf split now acknowledge privately that Qatar scarcely budged. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates suspended their anti-Brotherhood campaign against Qatar because of the more urgent threats they saw gathering around them.

A senior Qatari official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the joint communiqué supporting Mr. Sisi’s road map was merely a “press release” that carried little significance.

“We will always support the population of Egypt,” the official said. Al Jazeera was “editorially independent,” he said, adding that the other states “should not create political issues just because a channel is broadcasting what is happening.”

Although Qatar asked some Brotherhood members to leave Doha because of their political activities, only 10 or fewer have done so, according to Brotherhood leaders and Qatari officials. “We have not asked them to leave in any way, and we have not bothered them in any way,” the official said.

So what's really happened here, then, is that the the part of the al-Saud family that was very critical of Qatar because of Egypt got overruled by the part that's more concerned about Iran and Daesh, Qatar agreed to reduce the media infighting in the Gulf and perhaps participate to some extent in Saudi Arabia's calls for greater economic and military unity, and Abu Dhabi had to accept it because Riyadh said so. But I doubt they'll even be able to keep the media wars at bay for that long, so maybe it's more simply that the Saudis are finally learning to prioritize and not pick fights with everyone at the same time.

Dubai has glitz but no real sewage system


Quite astonished by this:

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It's located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn't have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.
You see the problem.

To solve the issue trucks come and collect wastewater from separate buildings, and then can queue for up to 24 hours to deliver it to treatment plants. Perhaps before building the next mega-mall, Dubai might invest in the unglamorous basics.

Censorship in the UAE

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about the abrupt cancellation of an academic conference on the Arab Spring.

The London School of Economics and Political Science abruptly canceled an academic conference on the Arab Spring it planned to hold over the weekend at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."

The last-minute cancellation took place after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain—where a protest movement was harshly repressed with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—be dropped from the program.

The paper was to be given by a professor who the Emirati authorities say has "consistenly propagated views deligitimizing the Bahraini monarchy" (and who has written critically about political repression in the UAE).

Here's London School of Economics professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's own account. 

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.”

The round-up the next day included two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori. Al-Roken had been defending high profile activists in the Emirates including the “UAE 5” — as the five people who were found guilty in 2011 of “publicly insulting” the country’s leadership and were subsequently were pardoned are known. Al-Roken also fought in court for the “UAE 7”, a group of seven men who were stripped of their UAE nationality. It is not believed he is a member of al Islah.

An Omani, a bidoon (stateless) and an Emirati journalist are also among those detained.

Rights groups have said the arrests are a suppression of dissenting voices in the UAE. “The only conspiracy that Emiratis should worry about is that of the government to stamp out any and every semblance of dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “Just how many Emiratis does the government intend to jail for expressing political opinions?”

Al-Islah is said to have ideological affinities with the Muslim Brotherhood, although the two groups are not officially linked (it would be illegal under UAE law for the group to have direct affiliation with the Brotherhood). The Emirates does not allow political bodies affiliated with, or ones that take instructions from external, organizations. However, the government believes links between al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood are strong. And perhaps as many as 20,000 people living in the Emirates are believed by the authorities to be associated with the Islamist group.   As prominent Emirati commentator Sultan al-Qassemi has noted, political Islamists have raised suspicions in the UAE due to concern that they are attempting "to take advantage of the rise of Islamist parties across the Middle East in order to advance their own agendas. As elsewhere, these Emirati Islamists are allying themselves with liberals and non-liberals alike demanding reform as they plan for the post-reform period in which liberals would ultimately be sidelined.”   For the UAE, home to more than 200 nationalities including many non-Muslims, promoting a “fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the UAE’s political arena represents a direct challenge to the philosophy of inter-faith harmony and tolerance that is fundamental to the nature of the state,” said one official close to government thinking. The UAE will not allow religion to be used as a political tool or allow for groups that are responsive to politico-religious guidance from abroad “or seek to promote allegiance to external authority, whether religious or otherwise,” he added. 

However, as noted, some of those targeted were not Islamists like Ahmed Abdul Khaleq — one of the UAE5. Abdul Khaleq, a stateless resident or bidoon, was stripped of his right to reside in the UAE and deported to Thailand in mid-July. The chairman of al-Islah, Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassemi, who is also the cousin of the ruler of the northern emirate Ras al Khaimah, is among those held. His case may be more complicated as his detention may also have been at the request of other tribe or family members who felt he was engaging in activities that could cause dishonor. It is possible that al Qassemi was taken into “protective custody” by the head of the tribe, in this case the Ruler, because he did not adhere to the family’s wishes. 

Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassemi the Ruler of Sharjah recently said, “We have a duty to protect this country through advice, and when a son commits a mistake, you advise him… If the state has taken measures, it is out of interest to protect those sons. Even those who are in jail, they are dear to us… We are not causing him harm but we are dealing with the matter because the person committed a mistake. And hopefully they will become good people in the future.” [More on Sheikh Sultan’s speech here.]

On Sunday, al-Islah issued a statement on its website urging for the release of the prisoners, adding that the party “has sought to support (the UAE) since its foundation… then we see that they incorrectly accuse Islah figures of harming state security!?” The activists were all “known for being patriotic,” al Islah added.

But in the UAE, patriotism may not be up for interpretation. 

In Translation: the UAE-MB war of words

Over the past couple weeks, a major issue discussed by the Arab (and especially the Egyptian and Gulf) press is the public spat between the leaders of the UAE and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE has been nervous about the MB (it has a small domestic version) for a long time, as last year's stripping of nationality of the UAE 7 (alleged members of the group) showed. These tensions mounted to the surface after the UAE rescinded the residency visas of Syrians who held a protest outside the Syrian embassy in Abu Dhabi. This was condemned by UAE Islamists (some of the Syrians are believed to be Syrian MB) and by Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi in Qatar, promoting the UAE authorities to threaten him with arrest for attacking the country should he visit. This incensed Qaradawy's followers in the global MB movement, and Egyptian MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan (one of a handful of MB leaders who really matter) countered by threatening (unspecified) action against the UAE should anything happen to Qaradawy. A story in this week's Economist provides more detail:

Yet the action against Syrian protesters, despite strong public sympathy with their plight, points to a broader intolerance for political activism of any kind, including internal dissent. This is particularly so if it is perceived to involve the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the past year, dozens of teachers believed to have Islamist tendencies have been removed from their posts, and activists said to have ties to the Brotherhood have been harassed, arrested and even stripped of their Emirati nationality.

In early March outrage over the treatment of the Syrian protesters led to the arrest of a sympathetic Emirati, as well as to a full-blown diplomatic spat between the UAE and Egypt. After Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Egyptian preacher revered by the Brotherhood, made a critical statement against the Emirates, police in Dubai, the emirates’ commercial hub, threatened him with arrest if he visited the country. This prompted a Brotherhood spokesman in Egypt to threaten retaliation “from the entire Muslim world”. The affair has now subsided, but not before Dubai’s flamboyant police chief warned on his Twitter account that “since the Muslim Brotherhood has become a state, anyone advocating its cause should be considered a foreign agent.”

The Brotherhood has since toned down its rhetoric, although it stopped short of contrition. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to which the Emiratis complained, is washing its hands of the whole affair, saying it is not responsible for the statements of the MB. The government is of course worried about getting UAE financial support (none of which has been delivered yet, perhaps in part because the UAE only wants to give it in kind for specific projects, not as general budget support). And the Emiratis are not over it at all, as the endless attacks on the MB in their papers show. For them, it's not just a question of national pride — it's a real worry about the regional MB block becoming a powerhouse and the Egyptian mothership boosting similar movements elsewhere. The Emirati MB may be small and operating in a society that is largely ruled according to tribal traditions and oil power, but it represents the seed of something that seems to really scare the Emirati establishment. The article below, from the Emirati paper al-Ittihadi, is typical in its defensiveness. 

As always, the translation is provided by the amazingly talented folks at Industry Arabic. Don't get your translations anywhere else.

The Muslim Brotherhood… and the Exploitation of Turmoil

Dr. Abdullah al-Awadi, al-Ittihad, 16 March 2012

No country in the world – least of all a country the size of Egypt – allows a political party, even if it prevails in “democratic” elections, to control its destiny or jeopardize its higher interests. When the party of the Muslim Brotherhood wages a battle in the name of the Egyptian state to defend a “cleric” who interfered in a sovereign matter in the Emirates, how could any state stand on the sidelines and watch while its back is exposed to the MB’s attacks — as if they had won the whole world, and not just the “Mother of the World”?

It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has forgotten they are living in the Arab country of Egypt, and not in the country of a “political party” that is drunk with victory, even though it has not yet done anything of note for Egypt.

The revolution that swept political Islam into parliament still has not yet determined the form of Egypt’s government. Rather, a cloak of chaos is what has emerged from the likes of the MB’s official spokesman to violate the most basic diplomatic norms, which do not allow anyone whosoever in any country whatsoever to violate the sovereignty of any country, whether it is a sister country or a friendly one. Not to mention that there are no issues between Emirates and a country as great as Egypt to upset their continual friendship. Furthermore, however much some people may try to elevate partisan interests above the greater good of the Arab nation, it is not desirable now, especially at this stage, to impose agendas steeped in extremism to stoke tension that is not in the interest of the two countries or peoples.

The Emirates have not once taken sides in the situation in Egypt, which still has not stabilized. However, this also does not mean that it has become possible to meddle in other countries under any pretext.

Both the leadership and the people of the Emirates stand shoulder to shoulder in professing loyalty to one side. They have been such since the country was founded, and they will not allow anyone from anywhere to disrupt this solid structure.

The Emirati people is aware of a danger that targets their security framework. This security is fortified by insightful, discerning leaders who are at the helm of a society that has not experienced one day of divided or splintered loyalty, or even two opposing camps.

Those who are riding high off the ballot boxes must all realize that the people of the Emirates hold a warm place in their hearts for their faithful leadership. This cannot be replaced by ballot boxes stuffed with ideas that disrupt security and stability in societies that have nothing to do with the ferment taking place in some countries, and which some people are using as a tool to gain influence over others.

Whoever does not possess troubled ground under his feet has no right to meddle with a country that engages the world from the shelter of security, peace and stability – not just regionally, but also globally. The Emirates has hints and indications that testify to this, which we saw in Bosnia in the 1990s, and which we see today in every spot that is looking for a drop of security from the Emirates’ outreached tap.

The ones who are exploiting the troubled situation in some Arab countries to export their extravagant ideas to the countries in the Arab world that enjoy security and safety should not be given the least chance to achieve their agendas, which transgress all the red lines of nations and societies without exception. 

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.

The activists were accused of insulting the Emirati leadership via the website al-Hewar (now down) or Emirates Dialogue Forum, which has been blocked by the UAE since February 2010, according to Al Roken. The charges against them were related to articles posted between July and October of last year. But the five men were not arrested until April 2011, suggesting that UAE authorities wanted to crush even minor dissent in light of the Arab Spring. Also in March of this year Mansoor, a member of Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, was among 133 Emiratis who sent a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council asking for the country to have direct elections and for the Federal National Council to have legislative powers.

Article 176 of the UAE penal code states “any person who insults by any means of publicity the president of the state… shall be punishable by confinement for a period not exceeding five years.”  Article 8 expands the law to include the vice president, members of the Supreme Council of the Federation and crown princes.

Human Rights Watch said in a press release that it had reviewed the messages allegedly posted by the accused and found none “do more than criticize government policy or political leaders. There is no evidence that the men used or incited violence in the course of their political activities.”

In the run up to the FNC elections in the UAE earlier this year, the Emirati leadership, including the President, urged its citizens to participate in broad and active political participation.

Now, in what smacks of hypocrisy, the UAE has imprisoned five men who were doing just that. Furthermore, the men have not received fair treatment. “Since their arrests, these peaceful activists have been subjected to an alarming series of threats and intimidation, with the apparent acquiescence of the Emirati authorities,” according to a report by Charlotte Peevers [PDF], a legal expert. 

The fate of the five was decided perhaps before the trial began. As Bin Ghaith wrote before the verdict:

This trial does not fulfill the minimum requirements of justice… I refuse to be a part of this silly show and become a victim of this falsehood. It appears that the verdict is already given away; we will be punished for giving our opinion on state policy and for declaring our stance towards some state affairs.

The UAE may still pardon the five men, but the country has already demonstrated its distaste for democracy. 

The Return to "Normalcy" in the Gulf

The U.S. is not so much ignoring the Arab Spring (since it cannot be ignored), but viewing it in the larger context — i.e., our Cold-Hot War with the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1979 to the present. As one U.S. official told the WSJ when asked how arms sales to the U.S.'s Arab allies were being impacted by domestic unrest, the response was "We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy," i.e., arms sales that send a clear message to Iran (ironically, when Warren G. Harding first used that word in 1920, it was followed up by a major reduction of the U.S. armed forces' strength). 

From Reuters:

"The Pentagon is considering a significant sale of [4,900] Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAMs] made by Boeing Co, adding to other recent arms deals with the UAE. These include the sale of 500 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles about which U.S. lawmakers were notified in September."

"The sale of Boeing-built "bunker-buster" bombs and other munitions to UAE, a key Gulf ally, is part of an ongoing U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran."

The JDAMs are compatible with the UAE's strike aircraft, specifically the U.S.-made F-16s that comprise a large part (3 squadrons, around 80 aircraft) of the UAE's airforce, which sit astride Persian Gulf waters facing Iran. The U.S. airforce maintains a small logistics base in the UAE. 

The UAE, according to The National and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, was the world's "fourth-largest arms buyer" in 2009, ranking ahead of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, particurally in purchases of fighter aircraft. The U.S. is the UAE's main source of arms purchases, followed by France.

While neoconservatives are increasingly blasting the Obama Administration for "green lighting" Iranian ambitions by appearing weak and indecisive, the U.S. has expanded arms sales to its Gulf allies since 2008. In 2010, a US$60 billion arms sale with Saudi Arabia went through, the largest single arms sale in U.S. history to a single country. The only stalled measure in this arena is that a US$53 million arms deal with Bahrain announced in October is now being held up pending a human rights commission's report (expected to come out on November 23). The suspension is the result of U.S. embarrassment over the fact that weapons from an earlier US$200 million arms sale might have been used against demonstrators.

In addition to these arms sales, preexisting and forthcoming contracts with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia will see more missile defense systems heading to these states. Once the withdrawal from Iraq is completed, the U.S. will retains its important Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (which the UK also uses), the Indian Ocean Diego Garcia facility, and approxmiately 40,000 soldiers spread throughout GCC states. A planned "CIA drone base" aimed at the Horn of Africa and Yemen, but likely capable of participating in an action against Iran, is reported to be under construction somewhere in the region. 

It's no NATO, but it's got teeth. Whether it bites or not is another story.


PostsPaul MutterUS, arms, uae
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.

But this time around all that Ahmed Mohammed Al Ameri needed in Abu Dhabi to win one of the capital’s four FNC seats was 1,153 votes — not too many considering more than 47,000 people were eligible to vote in the emirate.

The FNC is an advisory body with no legislative power. It is made up of 40 members, half of which are elected and the other half are appointed. When the Emirati leadership names the other 20 members, they may look to balance out the demographic and tribal make-up of the group by adding more women (only one was elected), a few more young people (three of the elected are in their 30s) or by appointing members of different tribal factions.

Two of Abu Dhabi’s other elected seats went to relatives of the same tribe as Al Ameri. The other winner from the capital, Mohammed Buti Al Qubaisi, won a seat with 1,199 votes despite the fact that his age, occupation and campaign issues were unknown, according to The National. Contrast that to Western political campaigns where candidates’ lives and policies are laid bare.

“The participation was good though we hoped for a broader one,” Anwar Mohammed Gargash, state minister for FNC, said. But it takes more than hope to deliver people to the polls.

Strategic mistakes were made: the campaign period, less than three weeks, was too short; there were too few polling stations; and the electoral college perhaps had too many young Emiratis and women, groups which are less likely to vote.  Voters and some of the candidates were ill-informed about the FNC’s mandate.

Many of the candidates campaigned on broad issues and in vague terms. One candidate from Abu Dhabi was interviewed — on tape — by a television journalist. The candidate said he had no platform, no opinions and no agenda. The reporter choose not to use the soundbite, but the candidate did have his lawyer send the journalist a text saying that he retracted the entire interview and threatened legal action if it were used. Perhaps the candidate was aware that such statements would not please either the Emirati leadership or the voters.

It has been argued too that the affluent lifestyle, relative good governance and great personal freedom Emiratis enjoy make them less apt to engage in Western-style democratic activities.

So going forward, how does one further promote political engagement in the UAE and who shoulders the responsibility — the Supreme Council of Rulers (the hereditary leaders of the Emirates), FNC members or the Emirati population? 

One of the arguments in the Emirates goes:  The Supreme Council of Rulers will cede more power to the FNC when the body proves that it is competent.

The problem with that is:  The rulers bare some of the responsibility for both real and perceived incompetence of the FNC, as they appointed all of its members prior to 2006 and still continue to this day to appoint half. Do the rulers not trust the people they themselves appoint? 

Another argument following the same logic: When the FNC members demonstrate they are doing an important job, which directly affects the lives of ordinary Emirates, then the people will turn out to vote for them.  

Problem: This is difficult for FNC members to do when they lack legislative powers. What can they promise their constituents when they do not have the power to make changes, they can only recommend them? Public criticism of the leadership is also not approved of.

Finally, this argument: When the population shows it wants a greater say, empowerment will come. 

Problem: Political debate is choked because there are no opposition groups or political parties. People must also know they are free to speak their minds without fear of being imprisoned.

The Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said “the most important thing we are looking for today is to expand the FNC authority,” according to Gulf News. This is something the Emirates have been saying since the early 1970s, when the FNC was created - the FNC needs to be empowered. 

But the leadership has failed to say how it technically plans to empower the FNC, and the low voter turnout will likely allow them to delay their answer once again. 

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.

Not all Emirati citizens can vote: only roughly 130,000 who were handpicked by the rulers of the seven Emirates are electors. These voters, half of which are women, are also only voting for 20 FNC members, with the other 20 appointed by the state. The majority of those campaigning — only the electoral college was eligible to contest a seat — for the FNC have been “hasty and unprofessional,” according to an editorial by Abdul Hamid Ahmad, editor-in-chief of Gulf News. “Many have been confused and only a handful have been focused on their mission.” But the candidates should not be blamed because campaigning, which was limited to about three weeks, is a new exercise and they have not had much assistance, the paper adds. Gulf News too notes turnout is key.

If voter turnout is high it is possible that the electoral college will be expanded, but if the turnout is low the same is also possible. Every adult Emirati could be eligible to vote for members of the FNC within eight years, Gargash, the state minister for the FNC, told The National. But 2019 seems very far off.

The reality is that the government has taken a small step toward democracy but it has not done anything substantial to empower its citizens. The Supreme Council of Rulers — the heads of the seven Emirates — hold all the power, something the elections will not change. There has been talk of empowering the FNC, but there has not been talk of limiting the powers of the Supreme Council — and the two go hand in hand.

Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Durham University, says it is not entirely clear what the purpose of the exercise really is — beyond shoring claims that change is on its way:

What the question is, is what are people turning out for? Not very much. [A good turnout] plays into the regime’s hands because they want to get headlines, they want to be able to give the impression that things are moving forward on this gradual path toward democracy that they keep talking about… This is something which doesn’t come anything near crossing any red line, a red line being giving the FNC any legislative power at all or even robust power of questioning.

It does not appear that the majority (or even a large minority) of society is calling for the rulers’ power to be curbed. A few did though. UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor was among 133 others who asked the Emirati leadership for direct elections and for the FNC to have legislative powers.

He and four others are now in jail for opposing and insulting the country’s leadership. Article 176 of the penal code states:

Any person who insults by any means of publicity the president of the state, its flag or national emblem shall be punishable by confinement for a period not exceeding five years.

Article 8 of the code expanded the list to include the crown princes of each emirate and others.

The trial of the five activists continues next week, the outcome of which may be more telling than the FNC elections. “The whole thing is a farce,” Davidson said. “Five people who actually called for real parliament with proper legislative powers with full elections and God forbid a constitutional monarchy — they’re actually in prison.”

Correction: The last quote by Christopher Davidson initially erroneously read "God forbid a constitutional democracy." It has been corrected to "God forbid a constitutional monarchy". We apologize for the typo.

The UAE's global ambitions post-Libya

This post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

It is a dot on a map dwarfed by its neighbors, but it is also an influential and stable country in a rough neighborhood. The United Arab Emirates is an increasingly sought-after ally, one with an ambitious foreign policy that it can finance with its rich resources. 

Do not underestimate the power of a small state, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. The UAE (and Qatar) is saying we “are determined, ready to play an unusual leading role in events…We are daring enough. We have the capacity, the ability and the desire to play a bigger role,” he said. 

The UAE sent a dozen aircrafts to support the no-fly zone over Libya and the country was arguably (along with Qatar) one of the biggest contributors on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Now as the NATO campaign is winding down, the Emirates’ contributions to Libya will “continue and become much more prominent in the post-Gaddafi era,” Abdullah said.

But Libya is just one of the many arenas in which the UAE is currently operating. For the past eight years, the UAE Armed Forces have been in Afghanistan — the only military force from an Arab country. (Previously, the Emirates assisted with peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kosovo.)

“The US, UK, France, see in the UAE an Arab state that thinks strategically, and one with which they can cooperate,” said John Chipman, director general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The contribution of UAE Special Forces to the operation in Afghanistan and of air assets to the coalition effort in Libya demonstrated that the UAE had no strategic aversion to direct cooperation with Western militaries when strategic perspectives and aims were aligned,” he added. “This case by case, but unemotional, strategic cooperation is likely to continue.”

In 2011, the UAE  attempted, with the help of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, to mediate an exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. More controversially, it sent 500 police officers to Bahrain, where a Shiite uprising was brutally repressed by the government. Bahrain and Oman were also given $20 billion by the GCC to help stabilize themselves and the UAE offered a $3 billion aid package to Egypt’s new government.  The Emirates is engaging further with Jordan and Morocco, welcoming the monarchies’ requests to join the GCC. It’s been a busy year.

And a UAE (GCC) decision on Syria also awaits. “The Gulf would have loved to see an evolution, not revolution in most of these countries because they understand with whom they are dealing currently. It is the unknown that makes them concerned,” said Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman of the Gulf Research Center.  Syria is a “wait-and-see-policy…The UAE has decided in Syria not to take a strong position.” NATO involvement in the country is not seen as an option for the Gulf states. “Our best bet is to bank on a military division in Syria… It is the only answer in Syria,” Sager added. 

The Emirates is also focused on building fighting forces. According to the New York Times, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan hired Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe), to create an 800-member mercenary special operations battalion to protect its interests. Prince has allegedly worked with the Emirati government before, including training Somalis to fight pirates with the help of a hired South African force, the NYT reported:

Mr. Prince, who resettled here last year after his security business faced mounting legal problems in the United States, was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to put together an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E., according to former employees on the project, American officials and corporate documents obtained by The New York Times


Mr. Prince’s exploits, both real and rumored, are the subject of fevered discussions in the private security world. He has worked with the Emirati government on various ventures in the past year, including an operation using South African mercenaries to train Somalis to fight pirates. There was talk, too, that he was hatching a scheme last year to cap the Icelandic volcano then spewing ash across Northern Europe.

The UAE said it uses international contractors including Spectre, Horizon, and R2 (alleged to be Prince’s new company) for planning, training, development and operational support. There are more than 40,000 Emirati personnel, in what the Emirates describes as “robust military capability…at a high state of readiness” — although it appears to be hedging its bets, which the NYT suggests explains the need for Erik Prince’s services outside the normal armed forces:

The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year.

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, like his late father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan,”has been a very keen observer of the security situation worldwide,” said retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2008 to 2009. “He has developed one of the most capable militaries in the regions. Small but capable.” There are significant challenges in the Emirates’ backyard, primarily Iran, and the UAE has gone “out of its way to buy significant capability for (its) own internal defense and internal protection,” Kimmitt said.

Arms imported to the UAE, whose biggest supplier is the US, have increased significantly in the last decade, according to [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute]( ). UAE military expenditure accounted for more than 7 percent of GDP in 2009, compared to 4.7 percent in the US and 4.3 percent in Russia. For a state with less than one million nationals, the UAE has — by any standard — a lot of defense equipment (which no doubt endears it to defense contractors and their lobbyists).

The threat of Iran has not disappeared. “Sometimes by having advanced equipment and having an advanced military system you try to send…a message…that I have strong alliances with other countries that will be willing to step in should I need them to…a deterrent,” Sager said. The UAE “is saying that we are not that weak although we are a small nation.” Iran is using very strong and hostile language and the UAE is quite concerned about their neighborhood, Sager added. The UAE's concern with Iran was highlighted in a Wikileaks-released State Department cable last year, quoting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) as backing "action" against Iran:

In a March 27 meeting with CENTCOM Commander General Abizaid, MbZ spoke about the Iranian threat with a greater sense of urgency. He was strongly in favor of taking action against Iran and its president sooner rather than later. "I believe this guy is going to take us to war. ... It's a matter of time," MbZ warned, adding that action against Iran and President Ahmedinejad should be taken this year or next year. MbZ said he was unwilling to wait much longer. "Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like Ahmedinejad. He is young and aggressive."

“Strategically, Iran is a rival, and as a practical matter, an occupier (of three islands), from Abu Dhabi’s perspective,” Chipman said. “In the increasingly sectarian prism by which regional politics are understood, the UAE goal is to constrain Iran, whether in Iraq, or potentially in Bahrain, from exerting a malign influence,” he said. “A challenge for the future is whether the UAE, having not had to convince the West about Iran, will be able to shape the attitudes of Asian powers engaging in the Gulf, and move them closer to its understanding of the Iranian challenge.”

Due to the regional Arab unrest, a great deal of attention is on the UAE and its western allies, but the Emirates is also strengthening ties with Asia and the developing world — including India, Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa.  The stability of the Gulf region has always been paramount, but the UAE is moving into a post-Zayed era, Abdullah said. “The post-Zayed foreign policy, the post-Zayed domestic policy… we are having such diversified and huge interest all over.” These interests include international trade, energy diversification and humanitarian aid. 

India and China are the UAE’s top commercial partners, accounting for the bulk of the UAE’s non-oil trade. The UAE is also going nuclear, awarding South Korea a nuclear power deal to build and operate reactors for the Emirates. The deal is worth $20 billion and South Korea beat US-Japan and French bids.  “The deal with Korea on nuclear power plants essentially imports Korea into the Gulf as a strategic actor,” Chipman said. Links with Australia and Japan are important, and the Emirates’ relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations states and China will grow in prominence, he added.

Humanitarian donations have also increased. In the last 35 years the country has given more than $70 billion to development projects in nearly 100 countries, according to the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among the most recent recipients is Afghanistan, which was offered a grant of $250 million for reconstruction projects. Victims of drought and violence in Somalia were given 600 tons of relief and medical supplies. Tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinian refugees were fed throughout Ramadan, thanks to the UAE. An end benefit of these humanitarian missions is soft power. 

The UAE, fully aware that alliances in the mideast can be short lived, is rapidly diversifying its strategic partners and international interests. By doing so, the Emirates’ presence on the international stage is effectively competing on all fronts with much larger and older states — as it endeavors to make the leap from a regional to global power.

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.   

Ahmed Zaabi, a banker who registered to run in Abu Dhabi, thought everyone should be allowed to vote. He could not say much more as candidates cannot start campaigning until September 4.

It is unclear why certain people will be allowed to vote and others will not be — particularly in a country where the Supreme Council of Rulers, the hereditary leaders of each emirate, have executive and legislative power and can negate anything the FNC recommends.    

What we are seeing in the UAE is not liberal democracy, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. But the UAE “hears what is happening in the world and it is adjusting… This is a step, a very tiny small step, in the right direction,” he said. “If you have billions of dollars to appease your population of course you postpone the problems.” But in order to prevent disturbances, to be proactive and to meet the demands of modern society, the Gulf countries need to take serious steps to create transparent societies and economies, Gerges said. This would serve the national interest in the short and long term.   

“The modern history of the Arab world has shown very clearly…that if you don’t have formal institutions, what you end up with is an institutional wasteland…The only way to build a modern society, including in the Gulf…is to institutionalize the relationship” between the rulers and the people. “No one is suggesting that you need to imitate fully the West,” Gerges added.   

There are 40 members of the FNC. Eight council members each from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The smaller emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Kaimah each have six. While Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah are represented by four members. Half of the members will be elected on September 24 and the other half will be selected by the Emirati leadership

“We are given an opportunity to participate in the decision making process,” said Nasser Al-Shaikh, a prominent Emirati business man who registered to run in Dubai for the FNC. The FNC needs to have more power to be an active player, but authority is not granted overnight and there needs to be a gradual change, he said.

The FNC was set up under the provisional constitution when the UAE was established in 1971. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, wanted there to be a gradual evolution of the state, according to Peter Hellyer, a historian who specializes in the UAE’s history. Over the years, the FNC and the nature of how the FNC was chosen would also evolve. Zayed saw a “role for popular participation for choosing members… and for Emiratis to play a more active role in government,” Hellyer said. Zayed did not specify when or how this should occur. While the FNC is an advisory body it does serve an important function, Hellyer said. It has real power “reviewing and vetting proposed legislation.” It has affected as much as 30 percent of legislation in past years, he added.

At its inception, the UAE’s style of government, including the FNC, combined traditional rule and modern institutional representation — but it is hard to see that this model can be indefinitely maintained.  Arguably there has been very little political participatory evolution in the UAE, but is this because the people are content with their leadership and a standard of living fueled by the wealth of this country -  or because the rulers who hold enormous power are reluctant to change?

The biggest challenge facing the FNC elections is voter turnout, Gargash, who joined Twitter to open up a direct line of communication, said.   If voter turnout is low, it will be hard to advocate for greater individual political power. Low turnout will seem an endorsement of the status quo — potential proof that political culture does not exist in the UAE. Nothing needs to change if the people are not calling for it.   Earlier this year, 133 Emiratis signed a petition asking the Emirati leadership for direct elections and for the FNC to have legislative powers.  Five men, some of whom signed that petition, are currently on trial charged with opposing the government.  But the only public protests in the UAE have been pro-government demonstrators outside the court who denounce the actions of the men on trial. 

While the UAE has an efficient government that provides for the needs of its small Emirati population, the Gulf is not exempt from the democratic trends engulfing the region, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.  People in Bahrain and Oman have turned out to protest in significant numbers. But “we shouldn’t assume that everyone has the same demand for democratic reforms.”  In the UAE there has not been a call for widespread democratic change or talks about redistributing power, but “people do want change,” Hamid said.

While the leadership in the UAE should not be compared to that of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Syria for a variety of reasons, it is a leadership that does not derive its authority from the people. It is not elected. And it has decided that not all of its people are ready for democratic participation — in fact, it believes that only 129,274 are.  

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.”

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.

Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University who knows the five activists said he does not think calling for reforms is a crime but that the case should be left with with the judicial system. Hopefully, the fairness of the trial is guaranteed and the men will be thought of innocent until proven guilty, he said.

The activists’ trial comes as the UAE is preparing for its second FNC elections on September 24, in which almost 130,000 Emiratis will be eligible to vote. Previous elections were held in 2006, when just more than 6,500 Emiratis were allowed to take part. There are 40 members of the FNC. Half of its members are elected by the electoral college and the other half are nominated by the rulers of their Emirate. 

The FNC’s second elections are an improvement on 2006, however they fall short of universal suffrage, said Abdullah, who is not eligible to vote in September. “I don’t see any reason for delaying universal suffrage in the UAE and granting the FNC full legislative power.”

The UAE has not experienced the unrest that is sweeping the region, but it appears to be feeling the pressure to reform. The country is investing in water and electricity supplies in the northern Emirates, building thousands of homes to distribute to Emiratis and creating jobs for its citizens.

The UAE leadership is sensitive on a couple of levels, said Christoper Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University. Domestically, the wealth gap between the poorer and wealthier emirates is growing and there is resentment building in the northern emirates, he said. And the illusion of stability for the Gulf monarchies, with the events in Bahrain and Oman, is gone, Davidson said. The UAE has shown they are aware of problems in the Emirates, however given the arrest of the activists and clamp down on other institutions, the UAE is saying to its citizens “that we are not willing to talk to you while we are fixing them.”

The five activists have been detained and held in preventative custody since April. On the heels of their arrests, the UAE also dissolved the elected board of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association replacing both boards with state appointees.

The Jurist Association was said to have violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans NGOs from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. Sunday, dozens of Arab intellectuals, academics and human rights activists, among others, released a statement of solidarity with the five men in detention and have called on international organizations to “work on releasing prisoners of conscience and opinion.”

The petitioners mirrored an earlier call by four rights groups, including Amnesty International and HRW, to end the trial. “The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a press release. The UAE has ratified Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, according to HRW.

While the Emirati leadership does not seem in real danger of losing power, the changes the UAE are making show that no one in the region is immune to the calls for political reform, said Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center. “This is a trend that has started. It has a very long way to come. How a regime, family, leadership responds sets the tone for what comes next.” The trend in the UAE has been for greater political say, but given the angst of the region, stability is valued, Shaikh said. A few weeks before he was detained, Mansoor tweeted “I wish to see UAE moving toward constitutional monarchy as a formula balancing between current situation and prospected reform.”

His trial continues at the end of September.

The UAE turns 39

I'm in Dubai for work this week and my visit here has just happened to coincide with National UAE Day, the Emirates' 39th birthday. The locals  have really gotten into the festivities.

Patriotic window display in Bur Dubai

The recession that hit Dubai in 2008 seems to have somewhat receded. There's still a lot of stalled projects and the economy isn't what it used to be. But people aren't panicking anymore that the whole thing is going to come tumbling down; there's a sense of relief and even optimism. 

The picture above is of a vehicle decked out for the festivities--someone has been doing great business in applying heart-and-start-burst decorated decals of Sheikh Khalifa, Maktoum and company. Last night, Dubai's main beach-front drag was full of kids in cars like this. The kid leaning out the window of this vehicle is spraying my taxi with silly string.


And finally, the Dubai skyline from the water. The impossible and rather stunning building on the left is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world. Apparently it was quickly renamed Burj Khalifa after Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi gave Dubai a $10 billion bail-out. Someone at dinner last night told me it cost $30 million just to change all the shop and street signs on which the original name (Burj Dubai) had already been put. 

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Succession in Ra's al-Khaima

I missed this when it came out at the beginning of the month. Interesting how these mini-states operate, also that tanks were involved...

The Politics of Succession in Ra's Al-Khaimah - GULF STREAM - Current Intelligence:

When Saqr died on October 27th, there were several hours of confusion.  Khalid re-entered Ra's al-Khaimah and installed himself in his pre-2003 palace with over a hundred supporters and retainers.  He had earlier been promised by the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai that he could attend his father's funeral and had concluded that he would be peacefully and swiftly installed as ruler, with Saud remaining as crown prince.  By mid-afternoon, however, a brief announcement was made by the Abu Dhabi-controlled Federal Ministry for Presidential Affairs congratulating Saud on becoming the new ruler of Ra's al-Khaimah.  Tanks were deployed on the outskirts of Ra's al-Khaimah and most of Khalid's guards were arrested and remain detained for questioning. Khalid and his son were not permitted to attend the funeral.

With Khalid stating that he intends to meet with the members of the Supreme Council of Rulers (comprising the rulers of each emirate) in order to discuss the future of Ra's al-Khaimah, it appears that he is unwilling to drop his claim, even though he has now had to leave the emirate.  This unresolved challenge will continue to undermine Saud and may provoke renewed instability in the future.

Incidentally I really like the publishing model of Current Intelligence.