The Gulf sheikhdoms have stayed aloof of Arab Spring turmoil because they are prosperous, generally well-run countries, whose conservative societies are loyal to their traditional leaders.
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But at the trial of five bloggers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), charged with endangering the country’s security and undermining public order, a tight lid on political activity also plays an important role in keeping the peace. The trial of the five opened last week to virtually no notice in the local press and is scheduled to resume in July.
“The leadership has very strong views on how to deal with any kind of Arab Spring activity in the country and nip it in the bud,” said Christopher Davidson, who teaches Middle East politics at Durham University and follows human rights issues in the Gulf. “They arrested a cross section of the opposition … and they gave a very strong message that no one is above the law. It’s had a chilling effect and has really frightened people.”
The UAE – a confederation of seven states including Dubai and Abu Dhabi – is best known for its glittering skylines and immense economic and cultural ambitions. It’s home to the world’s a tallest skyscraper, branches of some of the world’s great universities and museums, and a seven-star hotel.
But none of the emirates is ruled democratically, and Freedom House ranks the UAE among the world’s “not free” countries. Political parties are banned, public meetings can only be held with government permission and journalists routinely self-censor their stories, the Washington-based organization said in its 2011 report.
The five were arrested in April and have been held in “preventive custody” since then. They are being subject to a trial behind closed doors. As the proceedings got underway last Tuesday in the Abu Dhabi Federal Supreme Court, a band of demonstrators gathered outside – not to support the dissidents but to declare their fealty to the government.
“We are the happiest people on earth,” the poet Mohammad Hamas Al-Mazroui, was quoted as saying by The Gulf News
, expressing amazement that any Emirati would be calling for change.
The five include Ahmad Mansoor, a member of the advisory committee of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Nasser Ahmad Khalfan Bin Gaith, who lectures on economics at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne and has criticized the government for failing to undertake political reform.
The others are bloggers Fahd Salem Dalk, Hassan Ali Al-Khamis and Ahmad Abdul Khaleq Ahmad. The one thing the five share is that they were among scores of people to sign a petition in March calling for constitutional and parliamentary changes.
“UAE rulers are prosecuting these activists solely for advocating democratic reform,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for HRW, said a day after the trial opened.
In fact, the petition they signed is a respectful document, whose signers calls themselves “sons of the UAE” and refers to the ruler with honorifics. It contains two proposals – to expand the franchise for voting in the Federal National Council (FNC) to all citizens and empower it with the right to legislate.
In the last election for the FNC five years ago, fewer than 7,000 Emiratis out of a native population of some 800,000 were entitled to vote. The number will grow in this year’s election, but only to 80,000. Both voters and candidates are handpicked by the seven emirates rulers and the FNC’s powers are restricted to advising the UAE’s hereditary rulers.
“These are not radicals …but they do represent a large number of people in the country who think along the same lines. People who are dissatisfied with things have no voice other than the Internet,” Davidson told The Media Line. “You can criticize more or less anything as long as it doesn’t include the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.”
The expanded FNC franchise is among a package of pro-democracy gestures as anti-government protests erupted across the Middle East, reaching as far as Bahrain, an island kingdom some 480 kilometers (300 miles) away from the UAE. That rebellion was put down by troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but the crackdown on dissidents has done damage to Bahrain’s role as a financial and tourism center.
But for the most part, the Emirates have responded to the Arab Spring with tighter controls. Indeed, Monsoor’s Twitter feeds in the moments leading up to his arrest are redolent of regimes like Syria and Libya.
“The security guard of my building came now to my house at 3:50 am saying there are 3 policemen waiting for you downstairs,” he writes in an April 8 posting. The officers say they are impounding his car but want him to be present while they take it away. He refused.
A little later, he wrote, “They do not seem to have an arrest warrant and they want to take me in. It should be done the right way. I'm not going out to them.”
“Waiting and seeing what they are going to do next,” he tweets and, finally, “I'm home writing some e-mails.”
In the weeks after the arrests, officials dissolved the boards of the Jurist Association and the Teachers Association, replacing them with state appointees, according to HRW. They were among four organizations that had signed an appeal for greater democracy.
Although the UAE boasts 1.2 million Facebook users, social networking forums are filtered by the government, according to Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media-freedom organization. The filtering systems not only bar pornography but political dissent, “non-orthodox” views on Islam and critiques of economic policy, which has emerged as a sensitive issue after Dubai’s real estate boom collapsed in 2008.
Expatriates comprise close to 90% of the UAE’s population, but Davidson says that rather than being a force for change, most prefer the status quo that ensures stability and prosperity.