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Friday, July 1, 2011
The United Arab Emirates Getting twitchy about democracy The Arab awakening is making one of the richest of the Gulf states nervous
Jun 30th 2011 | from the print edition
Slow down, says Abu Dhabi’s crown prince
FOUR months ago some prominent citizens of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) addressed a petition to the country’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Couched in elaborate terms of courtesy, it noted that the UAE’s constitution calls for progress towards “a complete system of representative democracy”. Perhaps, they suggested, his highness might consider turning the Federal National Council (FNC), a legislative body with limited powers that is half appointed and half chosen by a select college of voters, into a real parliament elected by universal suffrage.
Good news soon followed, as government officials announced a tenfold expansion, from 7,000 to nearly 80,000, in the number of citizens who would be allowed to vote in elections for the FNC later this year. On June 27th came yet more happy news. The minister in charge of legislative affairs declared that by 2019 all Emirati citizens might have the right to vote.
Were these gracious responses to the petitioners’ polite request? Not quite. The government has shown no sign of changing the FNC’s toothless mandate to “discuss” legislation into anything like lawmaking. More to the point, several of the 133 original petitioners complain of receiving anonymous death threats. Five of them, including well-known bloggers and a distinguished economics lecturer, have languished in jail since being arrested in early April. Charged with threatening national security and insulting the UAE’s rulers, they may face five years behind bars. A crowd of government supporters mobbed a preliminary court hearing in mid-June to heckle them as “traitors” and “Iranian agents”, in what looked like a staged echo of similar taunts from loyalist commentators in the local press.
The UAE is by many standards a contented place. Its citizens, who account for less than a fifth of the country’s 8.2m residents, are among the world’s most pampered. They enjoy cradle-to-grave welfare lavished by the oil-rich state and the advantages of what has long been the Gulf’s most open and tolerant way of life. No wonder many Emiratis think it churlish to demand such things as full political rights and free speech.
But equally, many are perplexed by what appears to be a mounting campaign against even mild dissent. Consider, for instance, the fate of two of the country’s oldest civil-society institutions, the teachers’ and lawyers’ associations. On April 6th they issued a joint statement appealing for greater democracy. Within a month the government had dissolved both organisations’ elected boards and replaced them with state appointees. In June the Gulf Research Centre, a respected privately funded think-tank that has been based for more than a decade in Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven statelets, regretfully announced it was closing its offices owing to the government’s unexplained failure to renew an operating licence. Other academic and research bodies complain of increasingly intrusive government scrutiny, particularly of any activity related to political reform.
A recent report by the New York Times on an effort by Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the brother of its ruler, to create a crack battalion made up of foreign mercenaries has worried the reformers even more. An 800-man contingent is apparently to be trained in, among other things, crowd-control tactics against unarmed civilians.
Both external and internal factors are making the UAE authorities nervous. The most obvious is a general fear that even the UAE may be infected by the Arab spring, as democracy movements have toppled or undermined the region’s republics, setting off mild rumblings in such neighbouring monarchies as Oman and Saudi Arabia. The UAE’s rulers are also anxious about Iran, which occupies two small islands in the Gulf that are claimed by the emirates. The Islamic Republic is widely seen by Sunni rulers as a subversive Shia power, capable of sowing troubles, for instance in nearby Bahrain, where the Shia majority has been harshly suppressed. The UAE sent some 500 police to bolster Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family.
An awkward pair
The internal change is less obvious. Created in 1971 as a federation, the UAE is run under a gentlemanly power-sharing arrangement between the seven ruling families. Abu Dhabi, by far the biggest emirate and the richest in oil, is dominant. It houses the federal capital, and its emir is the UAE’s head of state. Yet until recently the commercial vigour and spectacular population growth of Dubai, which has little oil of its own, tended to balance this clout. Dubai’s success also brought cachet to its model of freewheeling economics and an open society.
Hit two years ago by an embarrassing debt crisis, Dubai’s ruling Maktoum family was forced to plead for help from the relatively conservative Nahyans of Abu Dhabi, whose oil wealth has soared on the back of high world prices. The gloating tone of some of the international press coverage of their distress also came as a shock. This has spurred many of the emirates’ royals to take a harder political line and to heed the criticism, long whispered in Abu Dhabi, that Dubai’s openness, particularly to a huge influx of foreign workers, endangers its security. Yet the openness was also to ideas, including political ones. In the longer run, a lack of those may prove to be the bigger threat.