United Arab Emirates: Between Arab springs

Mustafa Salama
5 Min Read
Mustafa Salama
Mustafa Salama

A few days ago a rumour circulated that Sami Anan, former chief of staff, had left Cairo for the United Arab Emirates. The rumour was soon refuted, despite the fact that many were not particularly surprised by his destination.

It seems the UAE has been involved in the Egyptian revolution from the very beginning. After all, UAE’s minister of foreign relations came to Egypt and offered Mubarak a safe refuge in his country. Ahmed Shafiq, who lost the elections to President Mohamed Morsy, also resides there. If Shafiq is to return home he will be arrested and is currently being trialed in absentia for corruption and financial offences, with more charges possibly to follow.

Al-Jazeera recently aired a programme about wealth obtained illegitimately by cronies of former Arab regimes. A Libyan official openly claimed that much of the Libyan embezzled wealth is in the UAE and similarly Egypt also has some of its wealth there. He hoped that the UAE would cooperate so that economically suffering countries can recoup what is rightfully theirs. So far the UAE has not been very cooperative he claimed.

Egyptians have not been thrilled with the Dubai police chief’s extreme and polemical tweets about the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, these comments mask a deep sense of exaggerated worry over political activism in the UAE that demands genuine political representation and participation.

It is not quite clear why the UAE is keen to please old regime cronies or support them. However if one takes a closer look at the seldom scrutinised domestic situation, one might get a glimmer of understanding.

The UAE’s response to the Arab spring has been mostly heavy-handed against opposition. There are currently at least sixty one recent political detainees in the UAE, of which one, Khalifah Al Nuaimi has been on hunger strike in protest against abuse while in detention.

Many Emiratis have been very sympathetic with the prisoners and have launched online campaigns demanding their release. Twitter perhaps is the most popular venue of online protest, however blogs also report and discuss what the mainstream neglects.

Online political campaigns have been steadily growing after many political controversies in 2011, including a petition signed by some Emiratis demanding political reform and a transition to a constitutional monarchy. Five of the most prominent signatories were detained and later released after condemnations from the United Nations.

Political abuse is seldom heard of as it is masked by the country’s extravagant infrastructure and advances of quality public services along with the fact it is a thriving international hub for business. This is not the whole picture; away from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, especially in the North in places like Sharjah, Ajman and Um Al Quwaian, the conditions are relatively unpleasant.

Most of the political detainees are from the north, but there is pretty much the full-spectrum of opposition in prison including Islamists and liberals. Many are highly educated and include lawyers, academics and those who held high positions in the state.

The political protest does not come simply due to disparity in distribution of wealth. It comes as many Emiratis will not be silenced from expressing political dissent. Sure the regime has lavished extra public spending and increased public sector salaries on its citizens, at times implementing 100 per cent increases, however their grievances are not primarily economic. There is plentiful of frustration over corruption and lack of transparency. The Arab Spring is certainly inspiring but Emiratis do not have to look far and can already see in Kuwait a much further advanced struggle for improved political conditions, which include massive street protests when possible.

From a quick overview of the UAE domestic political struggle one can understand why its regime is wary of the Arab spring and is supportive of the remnants it toppled over. The UAE however can still gradually change its foreign approach and accommodate better relations with Libya and Egypt which are already open to them. Perhaps it will benefit the UAE and enable it to alleviate Iran’s increasingly aggressive stance towards it later on. Moreover, should the time for political reform come soon, the UAE will be at least ready with a legitimating discourse to smooth the transition.

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Mustafa Salama is a Political Researcher and a Freelance Journalist. He has an extensive academic background on Islamist movements and Middle East Affairs. Salama holds a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Political Science from the American University in Cairo.
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