Since the start of the Arab uprisings the UAE has witnessed a widespread campaign of arrest mostly involving political Islamists. Five activists were detained early last year, sentenced then pardoned by the country’s president. Then in December six naturalized individuals had their citizenships revoked for “threatening national security.”
In April this year a distant cousin of mine, believed to be involved at a senior level of the UAE Muslim Brotherhood chapter, was put under palace arrest. Finally, this week a number of political Islamists were arrested, while a formerly stateless activist who has since acquired foreign citizenship was deported. Certainly, this is all very alarming, but these decisions by the UAE government hardly seemed to have registered on the wider national scene. Indeed, what I have come across from people I spoke to and on social media is overwhelming support and in some cases criticism toward the government for “not acting earlier.”
In fact, and this will surprise only those who wished to believe otherwise, including this writer, there is more widespread consensus regarding this wave of arrests than on any other national issue I have encountered. Following the often-bloody events of the Arab uprisings, those of us who have called for reform over and over again continuously find ourselves in a shrinking minority. I would be glad sit down and write you an article about how UAE nationals are up in arms, protesting in the streets (or in the malls) and demanding that the political Islamists assume power immediately. But that is not the case, not by a long shot — and not, it seems, even in the distant future.
But why aren’t UAE nationals marching in the street demanding urgent political reform? Here are several reasons. Western analysts will have you believe that it is solely due to the security apparatus of the state. That is an incomplete picture and ignores other variables, including the tribal nature of society. Poll after poll finds that the vast majority of UAE residents, citizens and expats alike are satisfied with their government and living conditions. Also, over the past few years I have found and written about the excessive materialism in UAE society; citizens are generally satisfied through employment and other government benefits, although there are emerging pockets of discontent that I have warned about.
I referred to this issue in an earlier piece as a “jobs for apathy” phenomenon. Furthermore, the fact that there is such a significant number of foreigners in the country — around 90% of residents are expats — makes UAE citizens apprehensive about protesting or making public political demands for fear of triggering a societal chain reaction. Another reason is the unknown alternative; is the vision that the inexperienced and opportunistic political Islamists offer any better than the status quo? That is highly doubtful.
As I spoke to a number of nationals, liberals and conservatives alike over the past few days, the comments I received were overwhelmingly against the detained activists. The most common reaction was, “What do these people want? Do they want to rule the country?” Other people I have spoken to ask if the activists want the country to go through a revolution and wonder why the activists would want to “destabilize one of the few secured and tolerant countries in the region.”
Even within the families of these activists there is astonishment. One of the detained activists’ father, who is also a respected moderate religious scholar, was a close friend of my own late father. My dad first met the scholar in the 1970s and appealed to the royal court recommending that the scholar, who had emigrated from a regional country, be considered for citizenship of the UAE. This week, we inquired after the scholar following his son’s arrest. He was clearly distraught, but not for the reason you may imagine.
“I never expected,” the scholar said, “that my son would be implicated in subversive activities of any nature against this country that welcomed us.”
Over the past few years, I learned that you can’t do something you believe is good to someone by force. And this is what the political Islamists of the UAE attempted. The UAE’s citizens and government alike were not interested in what they had to offer and yet they continued to misrepresent to foreign media and human rights organizations that the UAE federal authorities were standing in their way.
Some cases are quite mind boggling to many in the country and I personally have a hard time trying to explain them to detractors. One such example was a letter some activists wrote last year, titled “We stood against the regime and lost our citizenship” — citizenship that the very regime they stood against had given them in the first place.
Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a stateless blogger who acquired Comoros Islands citizenship and was deported to Thailand, is another difficult case to interpret. Khaleq wasn’t a UAE citizen when he signed a petition demanding political reform, universal suffrage and the right to monitor the performance of the federal government. Now he vows to continue his activism from Thailand while referring to the UAE as a “mafia without any rules.” On a personal note I hope that Khaleq is permitted to return to the UAE one day following a pardon or a pledge that he would not break any of the country’s laws, if only to be reunited with his family. But I know I am in the minority in this case as well, knowing that most UAE nationals will be highly offended by his rhetoric, judging from the reaction on social media.
In all honesty, I see these UAE political Islamists as having failed. They failed in measuring the level of support for their vision — an Islamized state that neither the government nor the citizens want, not even in the long term — and assumed that people will be happy to have something “good” done to them by force. In this case it wasn’t only the UAE “trolls,” anonymous and often intimidating social-media users who were in support of the UAE crackdown, but a wide section of the native population.
The polarization of society that resulted from the political Islamists’ activities will probably need years to undo, including the rise of a worrying strand of ultranationalists and neo-McCarthyists. The UAE political Islamists’ ultimate goals were political change and probably self-empowerment, and whether that was sudden or gradual makes no difference to the security agencies of the country. These security agencies were trained to spot threats to national security and for them, the political Islamists satisfied all the requirements.
With regard to the detained Islamists, should a trial be held, I along with a small circle will be keen on knowing that due process is respected, that their rights as human beings are guaranteed and that they are judged fairly and in a transparent manner. Meanwhile, most UAE nationals will be going about their daily lives occasionally wondering what the individuals who made some noise a while back were actually after.
This article was originally published in Al Monitor on July 18, 2012.