The quiet crackdown in a tourist playground

While putting up a progressive front, the Emirates of the Gulf have tackled any sign of unrest

With its glistening skyscraper-lined highways so far untouched by the angry protesters who have filled the streets of other Arab cities, the United Arab Emirates appears on the surface to have escaped the dissent sweeping the Middle East. But the Emirates have not been immune to the ripples of the Arab Spring: a vociferous minority is demanding change, only to be met with a clandestine crackdown on dissent.

While other countries in the Gulf have expedited reforms to appease citizens demanding more freedom, the UAE – despite having long-attempted to present itself as a model of progress – has taken a different tack, silencing any individuals or organisations questioning the status quo.

The surreptitious crackdown has affected all spheres – professional associations, non-governmental organisations, think-tanks, the blogosphere and even art exhibitions.

Five Emirati bloggers and academics who were rounded up in April are currently on trial for "opposing the government", threatening state security and insulting the country's leaders. The arrests have shocked the desert nation. Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, one of the accused, is an academic at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University.

Since the arrests, authorities have cast their net wider, dissolving the boards of several non-governmental organisations such as the Jurists' Association, a group active in the defence of human rights, and replacing them with government appointees. The Teachers' Association has received similar treatment. Rights groups have described the move as a "hostile takeover of civil society".

"What we are seeing is a collapse in democratic rights," said one activist, who, like many, now declines to have his name published for fear of reprisals. "We have gone back 30 years. They are afraid the revolutions will come to the UAE so they are scaring people into keeping silent."

The targeting of respected academic institutions has raised eyebrows as they are hardly revolutionary hotbeds. Last month the Gulf Research Centre, one of the UAE's few political think-tanks, said it was being forced to leave the country after "objections by the Dubai government to various aspects of GRC's work." The head of the Dubai School of Government has also resigned.

Amid an ever-growing state of paranoia, the chief of the Arab world's biggest art show, the Sharjah Biennale, has also been sacked for not sufficiently censoring the exhibition.

The government's attack on the country's pro-reform voices began after 133 prominent Emiratis signed a petition in March requesting the right of all citizens to vote for members of the country's Federal National Council. Currently a government-appointed electorate votes for half the members of the council, which wields virtually no legislative authority, leaving power in the hands of the al-Nayhan royal family, headed by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.

Signatories say they have since been threatened by security officials. "They come to us and say we will be the next in jail. They say we are trying to destroy our country," said one.

Before his arrest, Ahmed Mansoor, one of the five activists on trial and a prominent Dubai-based blogger who helped organise the petition, wrote a final dramatic blog post.

Entitled "They came to take me in at 3.50am", it described the moment his building's security guard knocked on his door to tell him three policemen outside wanted to speak to him about a problem with his car. "They make such tricks to and take you," Mr Mansoor wrote.

Mr Mansoor had long suspected that his blog would lead him into trouble with the authorities. "My family have mixed feelings; they think this might bring trouble not only for me, but for them too," he said in an interview with The Independent before his arrest. "On several occasions they've asked me not to talk about more sensitive topics."

There is concern that the trial, which resumes on 18 July, will result in heavy sentences. Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a politics lecturer at UAE University who knows several of the detainees, described the charges as "heavy and loaded."

"We can only hope the trial will be free and fair. This doesn't fit the image of the UAE: it has promoted itself as a country without political prisoners," he said.

The oil-rich nation has played a careful balancing act since citizens across the Arab world took to the streets demanding the end of dictatorships. While outwardly trying to maintain the façade of a progressive haven for Western business and expatriate workers, in reality it has been increasing its grip on power.

The country's divided interests are evident in its diplomacy. Abu Dhabi's F-16s and Mirage jets are supporting the Libyan rebels fighting against Gaddafi's brutal regime. But the UAE remains one of the most visible supporters of the region's other embattled leaders, with the President sending messages of solidarity with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, and the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, visiting in a gesture of fraternity. He paid a similar visit to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak shortly before he was ousted.

It remains to be seen whether the recent crackdown will silence the dissent, or help to galvanise the reform movement. For one of the petition's signatories the latter seemed more likely. "Emiratis can't accept this treatment: the people are angry," he said.

Then there are the reported lay-offs of hundreds of expatriates in the public sector as the UAE leaders scramble to bring down 14 per cent unemployment. With those expatriates who have been asked to leave said to have been given just weeks to go, the leadership's urgency in pacifying the country's disaffected youth is evident.

Profile: UAE

Formed one day after gaining independence from Britain in 1971, the United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al Qaiwain and Ras al Khaimah) and is now one of the Middle East's key economic centres. Drawn by the nation's thriving oil and financial industries, 75 per cent of residents are expatriates. However those living in the highly developed southern cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai enjoy a much higher standard of living than those in the poorer northern emirates.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam